Remembering Elizabeth Catlett
NEW YORK — Elizabeth Catlett, an icon in the civil rights and Black arts movements, died April 2 at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She is best known for her Black expressionist sculpture and prints and images of Black family and leaders during the 1960s and ‘70s. Born the granddaughter of slaves, Catlett was a woman of many groundbreaking accomplishments.
In 1940, Catlett won her first prize in sculpture for a limestone mother and child at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago. She became the first student to receive a master’s degree in sculpture at the University of Iowa. She later became the first female professor of sculpture and head of the sculpture department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Catlett always believed “art is about the culture of a people” past and present and strove “to present African American people in their beauty and dignity and to show our common humanity.”
Her accomplishments, however, did not come without tremendous struggle and sacrifice as a pioneer and activist during the communist-baiting McCarthy era that led to her taking up permanent residence in Mexico.
In an interview with this writer, Catlett discussed her illustrious career and her perspective on life and art at 94.
She said at the time she was tired, but turning 94 was not a big deal since she comes from a long line of family that have lived until 100 and longer.
“What I feel good and enthusiastic about is that I can still do sculpture. And that’s why I’m tired, because it’s hard work,” she said. But the hard work has paid off. One of her beautiful mahogany sculptures, “Torso,” recently sold for $200,000. “Without my youngest son, I couldn’t be able to do this,” she explained. “I don’t know if I can do another exhibit.”
Catlett graduated from Howard University, where she studied art. She had applied earlier to Carnegie Mellon University, formerly Carnegie Tech. She overheard one of the instructors say, “too bad she’s colored.” Not surprisingly, she later received a rejection letter.
Upon graduating from Howard University during the Great Depression, Catlett headed to North Carolina to accept a teaching job at Durham University, earning $59 a month. It was there she was confronted with another racist incident.
“The bus company had arrested some students for taking the ‘For Colored Only’ signs down. Nobody was doing anything about it so I got an attorney to get them out,” she recalled. Catlett was accused of hiring a communist lawyer and decided to leave Durham for New York.
It was in New York that Catlett met W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson and later began to teach design to women in a public school founded by prominent Harlem leaders. It was there she decided to pursue a grant to create a series of paintings on Black women, “Because there weren’t any. The images of Black women were either domestics or sexual,” she stated.
Catlett decided to study in Mexico, where she was impressed with how the artists there created art for the people. “So I got the idea of making art for the African American people,” she stated. She developed a series of prints. The first project was comprised of 15 prints devoted to Black women that included Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Phyllis Wheatley.
“A lot of people do what’s in style. They want to be rich and famous fast. I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about Black women who were being depicted very badly, written and shown in movies very badly,” she said.
When Ms. Catlett tried to return to the U.S. in the 1940s she was denied because the embassy claimed she knew communists. That claim was dropped 10 years later and she enjoyed dual citizenship.
It wasn’t the first acknowledgment that she had been wronged. In 2008, Carnegie Mellon University admitted they had discriminated against her and tried to compensate by awarding her an honorary degree, one of a dozen she received.
In 2009, Catlett returned to New York for her last one-person exhibit at June Kelly’s Gallery. A year later, the Museum of Modern Art honored her at the Friends of Education’s benefit gala.
Among the notable exhibitions of her work were a 1971 solo at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the group show “Two Centuries of Black American Art” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, and a 50-year survey at the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, Westchester County, N.Y., in 1998.
Last year, the Bronx Museum organized the show “Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation with 21 Contemporary Artists.” Catlett’s work is represented in museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City and the National Museum in Prague.