Elizabeth Catlett

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Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) was an African-American graphic artist and sculptor. She is best known for her depictions of the African-American experience in the 20th century, which often had the female experience as their focus. Her work is a mixture of abstract and figurative in the Modernist tradition, with influence from African and Mexican art traditions.

Catlett was more concerned in the social messages of her work than in pure aesthetics. “I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.” She was a feminist and an activist before these movements took shape, pursuing a career in art despite segregation and the lack of female role models. “I don’t think art can change things,” Catlett said “I think writing can do more. But art can prepare people for change, it can be educational and persuasive in people’s thinking.”

Her printwork was mostly woodcuts and linocuts and are recognized, mostly because of her work 1947-1966 with the Taller de Gráfica Popular,  a famous workshop in Mexico City dedicated to graphics arts promoting leftist political causes, social issues and education.  At the TGP she and other artists created a series of linoleum cuts on prominent black figures as well as posters, leaflets, illustrations for textbooks and materials to promote literacy in Mexico. Her linocut series “The Black Woman Speaks,” is among the first graphic series in Western art to depict the image of the American black woman as a heroic and complex human being. Her work was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement and the Chicago Black Renaissance in the 1940s and reinforced in the 1960s and 1970s with the influence of the Black Power, Black Arts Movement and feminism. Her posters of Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, Malcolm X and other figures were widely distributed.

In the 1950s, she shifted primarily to sculpture. Her sculptures are known for being provocative made of a variety of materials such as clay, cedar, mahogany, eucalyptus, marble, limestone, onyx, bronze and Mexican stone (cantera) . Much of her work is realistic and highly stylized two and three dimensional figures, applying the Modernist principles (such as organic abstraction to created a simplified iconography to display human emotions) of Henry Moore,Constantin Brancusi and Ossip Zadkine to popular and easily recognized imagery. Her subjects range from sensitive maternal images to confrontational symbol of the Black Power, as well as portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and writer Phyllis Wheatley, believing that art can play a role the construction of transnational and ethnic identity. Her best-known works depict black women as strong and maternal. The women are voluptuous, with broad hips and shoulders, in positions of power and confidence, often with torsos thrust forward to show attitude. Faces tend to be mask-like, generally upturned. Mother and Child (1939) shows a young woman with very short hair and features similar to that of a Gabon mask. A late work “Bather” (2009) has a similar subject flexing her triceps.

Catlett acknowledged her artistic contributions as influencing younger black women. She relayed that being a black woman sculptor “before was unthinkable…..There were very few black women sculptors – maybe five or six – and they all have very tough circumstances to overcome. You can be black, a woman, a sculptor, a print-maker, a teacher, a mother, a grandmother, and keep a house. It takes a lot of doing but you can do it. All you have to do is decide to do it.”

Life

She was born and raised in Washington, D.C. to parents working in education, and was the grandchild of freed slaves. her grandmother told her stories about the capture of blacks in Africa and the hardships of plantation life. Her father died before she was born, leaving her mother to hold several jobs to support the household.

Her interest in art began early. As a child she became fascinated by a wood carving of a bird that her father made. In high school, she studied art with a descendant of Frederick Douglass.

Catlett did her undergraduate studies at Howard University although it was not her first choice. She was admitted into the Carnegie Institute of Technology but she was refused admission when the school found out she was black. At the time the idea of a career as an artist for blacks was far-fetched, so she did her undergraduate studies with the aim of being a teacher.While at Howard, Catlett’s professors included artist Lois Mailou Jones and philosopher Alain Locke . She also came know artists James Herring, James Wells and future art historian James A. Porter .Her tuition was paid for by her mother’s saving and scholarships that the artist earned, and she graduated with honors in 1937.

At the graduate program of the University of Iowa she studied drawing and painting with landscape artist Grant Wood, she entered   as well as sculpture with Henry Stinson. Wood advised her to depict images of what she knew best, so Catlett began sculpting images of African-American women and children. However, despite being accepted to the school, she was not permitted to stay in the dormitories, requiring her to rent a room off campus.One of her roommates was future novelist and poet Margaret Walker .

Catlett graduated in 1940, one of three to earn the first masters in fine arts from the university and the first African-American woman to receive the degree. Later in life, Catlett donated money to the university to found the Elizabeth Catlett Mora Scholarship Fund, which support African-American and Latino students studying printmaking.

At Dillard University she studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago and lithography at the South Side Community Art Center .

In 1946, Catlett received a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to travel to Mexico and in 1947, she entered the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a workshop dedicated to graphic promoting leftist social causes and education. There she met printmaker and muralist Francisco Mora, who she married in the same year.  In 1948, she entered the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado “La Esmeralda” to study wood sculpture with José L. Ruíz and ceramic sculpture with Francisco Zúñiga . During this time in Mexico she became more serious about her war and more dedicated to the work it demanded. She also met Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and David Alfaro Siqueiros .

She worked with the Taller until 1966, but the fact that a number of its members were Communist Party members, as well as her first husband and her political activism such as her arrest in 1949 while protesting during a railroad strike in Mexico City, brought her under surveillance by the US embassy. She was eventually barred from entering the United States and declared an “undesirable alien” unable to enter to country to visit her ill mother before she died.In 1962, she renounced her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen. Catlett regained her American citizenship in 2002.

Catlett remained an active artist until her death at her studio/home in Cuernavaca on April 2, 2012 at the age of 96.

Sources:

edited from Wikipedia

See also many other videos of interviews about her political role and life.

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