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Alice Elizabeth Catlett

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Elizabeth Catlett
American Sculptor, Printmaker
American, (1915–2012)
About the Artist
Elizabeth Catlett, sculptor, printmaker, graphic artist, teacher, and political activist specialized in realistic art designed to preserve Black cultural traditions. She was a fellow of the Julius Rosenwald Foundation and art educator in both the United States and Mexico.

Alice Elizabeth Catlett was born April 15, 1915, at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington D.C., and was the third child of Mary Carson Catlett and John Catlett. Her mother worked as a social worker and truant officer and her father was a teacher in the Washington D.C. public schools. Her father also served as a professor of mathematics at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and taught alongside Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.

In 1931, Catlett enrolled at Howard University in Washington D.C., where she majored in design and studied printmaking, drawing, and art history. At Howard, she studied under Lois M. Jones, James Herring, James Wells and James Porter. Following her studies at Howard, Catlett took a teaching job in Durham, North Carolina, and became involved in a struggle to win equitable pay for African American teachers. During this time she enrolled in the graduate school program at the University of Iowa to pursue a master's degree in art and majored in sculpture. Catlett roomed with author Margaret Walker and studied under painter Grant Wood. Wood encouraged her to work with wood and to depict subjects in which she could directly identify with. She took Wood's advice and worked on images of African American women, mothers, daughters, and children.

In 1940, Catlett became the first person to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Iowa for sculpture. Her thesis piece, Mother and Child, a 36-inch high limestone sculpture, became a characteristic theme of her art. While studying ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1940, Catlett exhibited the Mother and Child sculpture at the Columbian Exposition, a national exhibition of African American art and won first prize. While in Chicago, Catlett roomed with Margaret Burroughs, a founder of the DuSable Museum and the South Side Community Center. The South Side Community Center was a place artists and writers, such as Margaret Walker, Margaret Burroughs, Katherine Dunham, and Charles Sebree would come together to discuss new ideas. Following her studies in Iowa and Illinois, Catlett became chair of the art department at Dillard University in New Orleans and taught drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, and art history. An incident of discrimination profoundly affected Catlett's focus on art during her stay at Dillard. Catlett escorted her art class to see a retrospective exhibition of Picasso's paintings at the New Orleans Museum of Art. During this time the museum's entrance was through City Park; the park was closed to African Americans, which required the class to enter the museum directly from the bus.

In 1942, Catlett moved to New York City where she studied with French sculptor Ossip Zadkine and lithography at the Art Students League. In the summer of 1942, she began teaching sculpture at Hampton Institute in Virginia. While there, she met artist and art educator Viktor Lowenfield. Catlett went back to New York and joined the faculty of the George Washington Carver School in Harlem, New York. The students consisted of laborers and blue-collar workers and the curriculum was an experimental hybrid of continuing and alternative education, offering courses in popular and classical music, practical economics, literature, photography, and sculpture. Catlett would recreate these workers in a series of generalized studies in oil and graphic media executed between 1942 to 1946 in works such as War Worker, Pensive, Portrait, Red Cross Woman - Nurse and Black Worker.

The Julius Rosenwald Foundation awarded Catlett with a grant in 1946. Catlett decided to create a series of works dedicated to African American women. The series would be entitled I Am the Negro Woman and conveyed the determination of African American women in the face of overwhelming odds.

Catlett traveled to Mexico in 1945, where she instantly fell in love with the country. In Mexico she studied terracotta sculpture with Francisco Zuniga, learning the Mexican way of building hollow ceramic sculpture at Escuela de Pintura y Escultura in Mexico City, and became involved in the Mexican government's campaign for literacy. Catlett returned to Mexico in 1947 and married painter and printmaker Francisco Mora. The couple had three sons Francisco Jr. born in 1947, Juan in 1949 and David in 1951. Catlett joined the Taller de Grafica Popular (People's Graphic Arts Workshop) of printmakers. The workshop's mission was to maintain the social and political ideals of the Mexican revolution. While at the workshop Catlett produced a series of linocuts of Black labors, artist and farmers entitled, The Negro Woman.

In 1958 Catlett became director of the sculpture department at the National School of Fines Arts at National Autonomous University of Mexico and remained so until her retirement in 1976. Catlett became a Mexican citizen in 1962, and during the 1960s, she created art using variations on the theme of the dignified woman of great strength, physicality, and primitive grandeur reminiscent of African goddesses and queens.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were years of social protest and political activism. Catlett created her most polemical works,"Black Unity," two mask-like faces in front of a clenched fist, and "Homage to My Black Sisters," an abstracted standing female figure with raised right arm. She created the works "Target" and the "Torture of Black Mothers," which allude to death, massacre, and dismemberment.

Elizabeth Catlett continued to work and exhibition her artwork into her later years. She passed away on April 2, 2012, in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

The Artist’s Work in Other Collections (selected)

Exhibitions (Object)

Exhibitions (Artist)

Awards, Commissions, Public Works


Affiliations (past and current)
Delta Sigma Theta
Mexican muralists
Charles White
Grant Wood
Diego Rivera
Freida Kahlo
Franciso Mora
Taller de Grafica Popular
Howard University
Hampton University
Dillard University
Iowa University
James Porter
Alain Locke
Lois Mailou Jones
Works Progress Administration

Notable
In 1940 Elizabeth Catlett became the first student to earn a master of fine arts degree in sculpture at the University of Iowa.


Bibliography (Artist)


Artist Objects


Artist Images

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