Happy Birthday to Elizabeth Catlett

Today is the birthday of sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett. Born April 15, 1919 at Freedman’s Hosptial in Washington D.C., she was the third child of Mary Carson Catlett and John Catlett. In 1931, she enrolled at Howard University and began her studies as a design major, but later changed to painting. At Howard, she studied under Lois M. Jones, James Herring, James Wells, and James Porter.

Catlett later studied at Iowa University to pursue a master’s degree in art and majored in sculpture. In 1940, she would become the first African American to receive an MFA in sculpture from the university. While at Iowa, she studied under painter Grant Wood. It was Wood who encouraged her to work with wood and depict subjects with which she could directly indentify. She took his advice and worked on images of African American women, mothers, daughters, and children. Her thesis piece, Mother and Child, became a characteristic theme of her art.

Elizabeth Catlett at work in her studio, circa 1983.

After completing her studies at Iowa, Catlett studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago before joining the Art Department at Dillard University in New Orleans. She taught drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, and art history. One incident profoundly affected the focus of her art during her time at Dillard. Intending to take her art class to see a retrospective exhibition of Picasso’s paintings at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the class had to enter the museum directly from the bus due to the fact that the museum’s entrance was through City Park, which was closed to African Americans due to Jim Crow laws.

The Julius Rosenwald Foundation awarded Catlett a grant in 1945 to create a series of prints and sculptures on the theme of African American women. The series would be entitled The Negro Woman and conveyed the determination of African American women in the face of overwhelming odds. In 1945, Catlett traveled to Mexico and returned in 1947, marrying painter and printmaker Francisco Mora. The couple had three sons, Francisco Jr., Juan, and David. Catlett joined the Taller de Grafica Popular (People’s Graphic Arts Workshop) of printmakers who were committed to maintaining the social and political ideals of the Mexican Revolution. She became a Mexican citizen in 1960.

The political activism of the 1960s and early 1970s was seen in a variety of Catlett’s works of that era, such as Black Unity, Homage to My Young Black Sisters, Target, and The Torture of Mothers. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and commissions, and continues to work and reside in Mexico.

The Amistad Research Center is honored to house the personal papers of Elizabeth Catlett, as well as a number of examples of her work in its fine arts collection. The staff of Amistad extend their heartiest birthday wishes to not only a wonderful artist and creator, but a longtime friend and supporter of the Center.

Posted by Christopher Harter

(From the Elizabeth Catlett Papers, Amistad Research Center. Image may not be reproduced without permission.)


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