Elizabeth Catlett is an artist that inspires me. A legendary sculptor and printmaker, she is best known for politically charged artwork produced in the 60’s and 70’s, which focused on issues related to the oppression of the poor, and struggles of everyday African American and Mexican women. Her genuine concern for the plight of others, especially the oppressed causes me to view her as an artist- missionary.
Commissioned by The Smithsonian Art Collectors Program to benefit educational and cultural programs, her “Children with Flowers,” print highlights the unity and diversity of children. It is one of my favorites. Likewise, her many outdoor sculptures are very popular and are displayed throughout the U.S., and in Mexico. A few years prior to her death in 2012, she completed a 10-foot tall sculpture of Mahalia Jackson, inaugurated in Treme, New Orleans. It was not far from her 1975 statue of Louis Armstrong.
Catlett was born in 1915 in Washington, DC. She completed her undergraduate studies at Howard University School of Art, and received a MFA from the University of Iowa. When she arrived as a student on Iowa’s campus, segregation required that the Black students live off campus, and she roomed with Margaret Goss, who later became a renowned poet and writer.
During that time, Catlett began exploring activist causes, and joined the National Student League and the Liberal Club, which held strikes against fascism. Upon graduating, she was awarded one of the first Masters of Fine Arts degrees in sculpture from the University of Iowa. Her thesis work included, “Negro Mother and Child,” a limestone sculpture that won 1st prize at the American Negro Exposition in 1940 in Chicago. One of the overarching themes of her work was the use of maternal imagery, and images of the African American woman.
Catlett continued her studies in ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in lithography at Art Student League in NY. While living in New York, she married artist Charles White. They shared a common group of colleagues and mentors, and traveled and exhibited together. White and Catlett both traveled to Mexico in 1946 to collaborate with the Taller de Grafica Popular (The People’s Graphic Workshop), which was formed in 1937 by a group of political activists and artists in Mexico City. The artists’ intentions were to produce images that uplifted oppressed peoples, drawing upon the parallel experiences shared by indigenous peoples in Mexico, and African-Americans.
In addition to her academic and artistic pursuits, Catlett expanded her activism activities for the rights of the oppressed, and became a permanent Mexican resident. In 1963, she traveled to Cuba to attend the Congress of Women in the Americas, along with the National Union of Mexican Women. In 1968 she became a supporter of student activists, who were attacked while protesting the Mexican National Strike Council. In 1969 she organized the Mexican Provisional Committee of Solidarity with activist Angela Davis.
Catlett was the recipient of many honors, including honorary citizenship from the City of New Orleans, and honorary Doctorate degrees from Pace University, Carnegie Mellon, and Syracuse University. She was also awarded the Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award from the International Sculpture Center, and was the first recipient of the Legacy and Legends Award from the Art Institute of Chicago, in 2005.
Catlett is represented in national and international collections, including the Institute of Fine Arts, Mexico, the Museum of Modern Art, NY; Museum of Modern Art, Mexico; National Museum of Prague; Library of Congress, Washington, D.C; Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA; State University of Iowa; Howard University; Fisk University; Atlanta University; the Barnett-Aden Collection, Tampa, Fl.; Schomburg Collection, NY; Rothman Gallery, L.A.; Museum of New Orleans, High Museum, Atlanta; and the Metropolitan Museum, NY.
Catlett was continuously celebrated for her artistic and social activist work until her death in 2012. She died at the age of 96, 13 days shy of her 97th birthday.