“The Portrait of an Artist:” The Life and Memory of Elizabeth Catlett

This is the fifth in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Black History Month. Here Morgan reflects on African American women’s bodies in art, and their opportunities in the art world through a biography of renowned artist Elizabeth Catlett.

By Kelli Morgan, Ph.D. Student, W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, Public History Program

Sharecropper
Sharecropper, Elizabeth Catlett

In January 2011 the Bronx Museum presented Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation with 21 Contemporary Artists to explore what art historian Isolde Brielmaier describes as the “beauty, aesthetic excellence, conceptual strength, and inventive stance of Catlett’s work throughout time.” This exhibition was one of the more recent celebrations of Catlett’s fascinating oeuvre and long-standing career. For 70 years Elizabeth Catlett’s elegant sculpture and energetic print work penetrated and transformed the American art world, illustrating art’s crucial function as a catalyst for social and political change.

Born in Washington, D.C., on April 15, 1915, Alice Elizabeth Catlett’s talents were cultivated in an environment that valued education. Her parents, John Catlett and Mary Carson Catlett, were teachers employed in the D.C. public school system. John Catlett was a former professor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and Mary Catlett worked as a truant officer. It is from her mother’s teachings and social work in urban D.C. that Elizabeth Catlett began to form the lens through which she identified herself as a woman, an activist, and an artist.

Coming of age at a time when segregation and racial violence were pervasive throughout the South, opportunities for Black women to study and become professional artists were scarce. However, because her mother was such an avid supporter of her daughter’s love for art, Catlett began developing her artistic acumen at Dunbar High School. She graduated in 1931 and went on to receive a Bachelor of Science in Art from Howard University in 1935, and became one of the first people to receive a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa. As an undergraduate, Catlett studied design, drawing, and printmaking with Lois Mailou Jones, James Lesesne Wells, and James Porter, some of the premier Black artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Between her high school graduation and her undergraduate studies at Howard, Catlett experienced the effects of American racism when she was denied entrance to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh — now Carnegie Mellon University — because she was African American. This rejection connected Catlett to the myriad discriminatory experiences of Black women that her mother often recounted. It is from such adversity that Catlett primarily centered her artistic career upon the plights of Black women. Throughout her career her artwork exemplified the lives of Black women, honoring their capacity to overcome the harsh, oppressive circumstances in which they lived.

From the time she entered college, social and political activism was an essential aspect of Catlett’s personal and professional life. She participated in anti-fascism and anti-war activities at Howard University, as well as in protests demanding higher wages for schoolteachers while working in Durham. She challenged segregation in New Orleans by supporting a group of Dillard students, who were wrongly arrested for removing the “For Colored Only” signs on a city bus; and by taking her students to a Picasso exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art that was located in an area inadmissible for African Americans. These activities served as the fulcrum upon which her Marxist and socialist ideals operated. Her work in social realism with the artists of the Black Chicago Renaissance reinforced these ideals, but it was her work at the Carver School, a Popular Front school led by the
Communist Party, that brought her social and political activism to artistic realization.

At the Carver School Catlett worked primarily with Black women, teaching them artistic practices from a Marxist perspective. In 1991 Catlett told her biographer, art historian Melanie Anne Herzog, that these sessions “gave [her] a basis for what [she] wanted to do” as an artist. Prior to working with these women, Catlett did not identify herself with the working and poor classes of African Americans, despite the substantial influence of her mother on her development as an artist. Yet, after teaching and learning from these women, Catlett’s dedication to accurate artistic representations of lower-class Black women solidified, which is vividly displayed in her series, The Negro Woman, 1946-47.

Mother and Child
Mother and Child, Elizabeth Catlett

In 1946 a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald fund allowed Catlett to travel to Mexico, where she established herself as a permanent resident in 1947. In Mexico she began her acclaimed graphic work at the Taller de Gráfica Popular; met her second husband, Francisco Mora, who preceded her in death in 2002; and gave birth to her three sons Francisco, Juan and David Mora. Familiar with Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros’s influences on American art, Catlett was eager to work with the socially active artists at the Taller. Her activities there made her a target of the vicious postwar, anti-Communist political environment that buttressed the Cold War and McCarthyism. She experienced aggressive political scrutiny by the U.S. government (through the House Un-American Activities Committee — HUAC — and the U.S. embassy in Mexico) throughout the 1950s, which forced her to become a Mexican citizen in 1962. She quickly incorporated what she learned while working with Black Chicago Renaissance artists with the Taller’s artists’ commitment to making art for the people into her series, The Negro Woman. In this series, Catlett engages social realism to render images of the plight of Black women, who represent the Black working class. From an African American, feminist perspective, Catlett’s images serve as reconstructed American history that function as cultural memory for an international audience.

Over the next 70 years, Catlett cultivated her dedication to Black peoples through continued political activism, became an iconic figure during the Black Arts and Black Power Movements, and by the late 20th century she was well known as a preeminent African American artist. The Black female form was a site of both personal identity and artistic creativity that Elizabeth Catlett used to transcend racial discrimination, gender subordination, and national boundaries. It exemplified her experiences as a Black woman, an activist, and a mother, themes that were central to her work and which she used to connect herself to both African American and Mexican peoples. She utilized representations of Black women to affirm all people of color and to present scenes that global audiences can identify within their own communities and memories for a long time to come.

Relevant Links:

PBS: Elizabeth Catlett

Catlett’s Obituary

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