Elizabeth Catlett was an American and Mexican graphic artist and sculptor best known for her depictions of the African-American experience in the 20th century, which often focused on the female experience. She was born and raised in Washington, D.C. to parents working in education, and was the grandchild of freed slaves. It was difficult for a black woman in this time to pursue a career as a working artist. Catlett devoted much of her career to teaching. However, a fellowship awarded to her in 1946 allowed her to travel to Mexico City, where she worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular for twenty years and became head of the sculpture department for the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas. In the 1950s, her main means of artistic expression shifted from print to sculpture, though she never gave up the former.
Her work is a mixture of abstract and figurative in the Modernist tradition, with influence from African and Mexican art traditions. According to the artist, the main purpose of her work is to convey social messages rather than pure aesthetics. Her work is heavily studied by art students looking to depict race, gender and class issues. During her lifetime, Catlett received many awards and recognitions, including membership in the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana, the Art Institute of Chicago Legends and Legacy Award, honorary doctorates from Pace University and Carnegie Mellon, and the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award in contemporary sculpture.
Catlett was born and raised in Washington, D.C. Both her mother and father were the children of freed slaves, and her grandmother told her stories about the capture of their people in Africa and the hardships of plantation life. Catlett was the youngest of three children. Both of her parents worked in education; her mother was a truant officer and her father taught at Tuskegee University, the then D.C. public school system. Her father died before she was born, leaving her mother to hold several jobs to support the household.
Catlett’s 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 completed her undergraduate studies at Howard University, graduating cum laude, although it was not her first choice. She was also admitted into the Carnegie Institute of Technology but was refused admission when the school discovered she was black. However, in 2007, as Cathy Shannon of E&S Gallery was giving a talk to a youth group at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, PA, she recounted Catlett’s tie to Pittsburgh because of this injustice. An administrator with Carnegie Mellon University was in the audience and heard the story for the first time. She immediately told the story to the school’s president, Jared Leigh Cohon, who was also unaware and deeply appalled that such a thing had happened. In 2008, President Cohon presented Catlett with an honorary Doctorate degree and a one-woman show of her art was presented by E&S Gallery at The Regina Gouger Miller Gallery on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University.
At Howard University, Catlett’s professors included artist Lois Mailou Jones and philosopher Alain Locke. She also came to know artists James Herring, James Wells, and future art historian James A. Porter. Her tuition was paid for by her mother’s savings and scholarships that the artist earned, and she graduated with honors in 1937. At the time, the idea of a career as an artist was far-fetched for a black woman, so she completed her undergraduate studies with the aim of being a teacher. After graduation, she moved to her mother’s hometown of Durham, NC to teach high school.
Catlett became interested in the work of landscape artist Grant Wood, so she entered the graduate program of the University of Iowa where he taught. There, she studied drawing and painting with Wood, as well as sculpture with Harry Edward 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, therefore she rented 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.
After Iowa, Catlett moved to New Orleans to work at Dillard University, spending the summer breaks in Chicago. During her summers, she studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago and lithography at the South Side Community Art Center. In Chicago, she also met her first husband, artist Charles Wilbert White. The couple married in 1941. In 1942, the couple moved to New York, where Catlett taught adult education classes at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem. She also studied lithography at the Art Students League of New York, and received private instruction from Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine, who urged her to add abstract elements to her figurative work. During her time in New York, she met intellectuals and artists such as Gwendolyn Bennett, W. E. B. Dubois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, and Paul Robeson.
In 1946, Catlett received a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to travel with her husband to Mexico and study. She accepted the grant in part because at the time American art was trending toward the abstract while she was interested in art related to social themes. Shortly after moving to Mexico that same year, Catlett divorced White. In 1947, she entered the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a workshop dedicated to prints promoting leftist social causes and education. There she met printmaker and muralist Francisco Mora, whom she married later that same year. The couple had three children, all of whom developed careers in the arts: Francisco in jazz music, Juan Mora Catlett in filmmaking, and David in the visual arts. The last worked as his mother’s assistant, performing the more labor intensive aspects of sculpting when she was no longer able. 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 art and more dedicated to the work it demanded. She also met Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
In 2006, Kathleen Edwards, the curator of European and American art, visited Catlett in Cuernavaca, Mexico and purchased a group of 27 prints for the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA). Catlett donated this money to the University of Iowa Foundation in order to fund the Elizabeth Catlett Mora Scholarship Fund, which supports African-American and Latino students studying printmaking. Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall on the University of Iowa campus is named in her honor.
Catlett worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) from 1946 until 1966. However, because some of the members were also Communist Party members, and because of her own activism regarding a railroad strike in Mexico City had led to an arrest in 1949, Catlett came under surveillance by the United States Embassy. Eventually, she was barred from entering the United States and declared an “undesirable alien.” She was unable to return home to visit her ill mother before she died. In 1962, she renounced her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen.
In 1971, after a letter-writing campaign to the State Department by colleagues and friends, she was issued a special permit to attend an exhibition of her work at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
After retiring from her teaching position at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas, Catlett moved to the city of Cuernavaca, Morelos in 1975. In 1983, she and Mora purchased an apartment in Battery Park City, NY. The couple spent part of the year there together from 1983 until Mora’s death in 2002. Catlett regained her American citizenship in 2002.
Catlett remained an active artist until her death. The artist died peacefully in her sleep at her studio home in Cuernavaca on April 2, 2012, at the age of 96.She is survived by her 3 sons, 10 grandchildren, and 6 great-grandchildren.
Very early in her career, Catlett accepted a Public Works of Art Project assignment with the federal government for unemployed artists during the 1930s. However, she was fired for lack of initiative, very likely due to immaturity. The experience gave her exposure to the socially-themed work of Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias.
Much of her career was spent teaching, as her original intention was to be an art teacher. After receiving her undergraduate degree, her first teaching position was in the Durham, NC school system. However, she became very dissatisfied with the position because black teachers were paid less. Along with Thurgood Marshall, she participated in an unsuccessful campaign to gain equal pay. After graduate school, she accepted a position at Dillard University in New Orleans in the 1940s. There, she arranged a special trip to the Delgado Museum of Art to see the Picasso exhibit. As the museum was closed to black people at the time, the group went on a day it was closed to the public. She eventually went on to chair the art department at Dillard. Her next teaching position was with the George Washington Carver School, a community alternative school in Harlem, where she taught art and other cultural subjects to workers enrolled in night classes. Her last major teaching position was with the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), starting in 1958, where she was the first female professor of sculpture. One year later, she was appointed the head of the sculpture department despite protests that she was a woman and a foreigner. She remained with the school until her retirement in 1975
When she moved to Mexico, Catlett’s first work as an artist was with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), a famous workshop in Mexico City dedicated to graphic arts promoting leftist political causes, social issues, and education. At the TGP, she and other artists created a series of linoleum cuts featuring prominent black figures, as well as posters, leaflets, illustrations for textbooks, and materials to promote literacy in Mexico. Catlett’s immersion into the TGP was crucial for her appreciation and comprehension of the signification of “mestizaje”, a blending of Indigenous, Spanish and African antecedents in Mexico, which was a parallel reality to the African American experiences. She remained with the workshop for twenty years, leaving in 1966. Her posters of Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, Malcolm X and other figures were widely distributed.