Elizabeth Catlett (1915 – 2012)
Known for abstract sculpture in bronze and marble as well as prints and paintings, particularly depicting the female figure, Elizabeth Catlett is unique for distilling African American, Native American, and Mexican art in her work. She is “considered by many to be the greatest American black sculptor”. . .(Rubinstein 320)
Catlett was born in Washington D.C. and later became a Mexican citizen, residing in Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico. She spent the last 35 years of her life in Mexico.
Her father, a math teacher at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, died before she was born, but the family, including her working mother, lived in the relatively commodious home of his family in DC. Catlett received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University, where there was much discussion about whether or not black artists should depict their own heritage or embrace European modernism.
She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1940 from the University of Iowa, where she had gone to study with Grant Wood, Regionalist painter. His teaching dictum was “paint what you know best,” and this advice set her on the path of dealing with her own background. She credits Wood with excellent teaching and deep concern for his students, but she had a problem during that time of taking classes from him because black students were not allowed housing in the University’s dormitories.
Following graduation in 1940, she became Chair of the Art Department at Dillard University in New Orleans. There she successfully lobbied for life classes with nude models, and gained museum admission to black students at a local museum that to that point, had banned their entrance. That same year, her painting Mother and Child, depicting African-American figures won her much recognition.
From 1944 to 1946, she taught at the George Washington Carver School, an alternative community school in Harlem that provided instruction for working men and women of the city. From her experiences with these people, she did a series of paintings, prints, and sculptures with the theme “I Am a Negro Woman.”
In 1946, she received a Rosenwald Fellowship, and she and her artist husband, Charles White, traveled to Mexico where she became interested in the Mexican working classes. In 1947, she settled permanently in Mexico where she, divorced from White, married artist Francisco Mora. The couple had three children. From 1958 to 1973, she became the first woman professor of sculpture and later Chair of the department of sculpture at the National School of Fine Arts, Mexico.
There she also did much printmaking, which she found an affordable medium for reaching the masses of people and produced images of African-American and Mexican working class women.
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists
Added note: Elizabeth Catlett died at the age of 96 on April 2, 2012 at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
(Obituary. Chicago Tribune April 4, 2012)
Biography from the Archives of AskART