Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012)

In 2000, Catlett acknowledged her role model influence on younger black women. She said that being a black woman sculptor "before was unthinkable.  … There were very few black women sculptors – maybe five or six – and they all had 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."

Art historian and Catlett scholar Melanie Herzog wrote in 2005: “Printmaking for Catlett is a consciously political practice. At the same time, however, her prints – some intricately detailed and others elegantly spare – manifest her understanding that the power of an image resides in the artist’s command of form, sensitivity to materials and technical proficiency.”

Cartas, 1986. Lithograph. Museum purchase in part funded by the Hickory Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., 2013.9

Cartas, 1986. Lithograph. Museum purchase in part funded by the Hickory Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., 2013.9

The woman in Cartas is Whoopi Goldberg portraying Celie Harris in the 1985 Steven Spielberg film The Color Purple. The film was made in North Carolina’s Anson and Union Counties, and Elizabeth Catlett was commissioned to participate in the promotional campaign for the film.

The Color Purple portrays the transformation of an African American woman dealing with poverty, racism and sexism, a woman who is a survivor helped by other strong women.  Here, Celie is gazing at letters from her sister Nettie that have been hidden from Celie for years and that tell of Nettie’s life in Africa.  

In 1935, after graduating with high honors and a Bachelor of Science degree in art from Howard University, printmaker and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett spent two years teaching public school art in Durham, NC, the city of her birth. During this time she and lawyer Thurgood Marshall worked together to gain equal pay for teachers of color. Although their efforts were not successful, Marshall became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Catlett became a celebrated artist known around the world for her printmaking and sculpture.

It was in college that Catlett first became aware of the Mexican muralists and the concept of using art to educate people about social issues. While studying for her Masters degree at the University of Iowa under regionalist Grant Wood (1891- 1942), Catlett began working with clay and wood, and took Wood's advice to look to her own people for inspiration.

After Iowa, Catlett moved to New Orleans to work at Dillard University, spending the summer breaks in Chicago. There she studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago, and also met her first husband, Charles White. They married in 1941 and moved to New York City.  They shared an interest in black history, the Mexican muralists and the talents of African-Americans; and Catlett put this awareness to use while teaching at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem.

In 1946 Catlett won a Rosenwald fellowship that allowed her to study in Mexico. There Catlett, having divorced White, married Mexico City painter Francisco Mora. The couple had three children, all of whom eventually developed their own careers in the arts.

In 1958, Catlett became the first female professor of sculpture and the head of the sculpture department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She became a Mexican citizen in 1962, and lived in Mexico for the rest of her life.

Catlett's artistic work continues to be sought after, exhibited and collected world-wide.

A more extensive biography of Catlett's life and consideration of her work, along with a selected bibliography, can be found here.

Works from the Museum's collection by artists who were influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement were exhibited at HMA between February 6 and May 29, 2016 . Artists included Elizabeth CatlettRomare BeardenJacob LawrenceSharif BeyJuie Rattley III, Kara Walker and more. (Links connect to HMA blog posts about each artist.)

Two works by Catlett are part of the exhibit Woman Made that showcases works by women artists in the Museum's permanent collection.  The show opened December 17, 2016 and runs through April 23, 2017.

Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.