Elizabeth Catlett: Biography
An Artist For Social Reform
As Jayne Wark argues in Radical Gestures, “feminism has played an instrumental role in forcing the contemporary art world into an awareness of how it premises of autonomy and neutrality conceal assumptions of power and authority” (Wark, 5). In plain terms, Wark suggests that the feminist outlook in the 1960’s and 1970’s revolutionized the purpose of art; shifting it from a means of escape from “social struggle and political tension” to a vehicle for political and social protest. A leader in this change was Elizabeth Catlett, an African American female printmaker and sculptor who focused her artwork on the injustices faced by the African American woman in an attempt to facilitate social change (Carr, online).
Catlett was born in Washington D.C. on April 15, 1915 to parents John and Mary Carson Catlett, both teachers (RoGallery, online). Catlett grew up in a household consisting of both her parents and her grandparents. Her grandparents were victims of slavery, exposing Catlett to the harsh reality of social injustices towards the African American community at a young age (Carr, online). Catlett’s mother, aside from having a career in teaching, was also a social worker. “Accounts of slavery and abuse of blacks in America recounted by her grandmother and tales of her social-worker mother positioned Catlett’s sense of self and her determination to give voice to black women through her art” (Harrison, online). This family influence, along with other life experiences later to be described, is shown to have a lasting influence on the artwork that Catlett went on to produce.
As both of her parents were teachers, getting an education was a priority in Catlett’s life. Catlett began her education at Lucretia Mott Elementary School and then went on to attended Dunbar High School. There she became interested in art, applying to and winning “a competitive examination for a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh” (RoGallery, online). This accomplishment, however, was soon reneged due to Catlett’s race. This experience only further magnified the social divide based on race that existed in American Society to Catlett. Not to be deterred, Catlett continued her studies attending Howard University where she was one of the few female art students (Harrison, online). There she focused on printmaking and drawing, with special attention to painting (particularly, Mexican Murals) because of the influence of James A. Porter (RoGallery, online). Catlett credits her strong discipline and work ethic to Porter (Harrison, online)
Graduating in 1935, Catlett still wanted to pursue her interest in sculpture. She continued with her education at the University of Iowa where she became the first person of either gender to graduate from the institution with a Masters in Fine Arts degree in sculpture (Carr, Online). There she was largely influenced by painter Grant Wood. Wood encouraged his students to focus the attention of their artwork on the subjects they were most familiar with. This advice dictated the concentration of Catlett’s artwork. Catlett was raised in an African American community, surrounded by mostly African American women, making her most familiar with this population. For this reason, African American’s, and as can be seen in the majority of her works women, became the primary subject of Catlett’s sculptures and prints (Harrison, Online). Catlett also studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago and lithography at the Art Students League in New York.
Catlett briefly worked as a teacher and as the promotion director of the George Washington Carver School in Harlem, New York (Carr, Online). She then moved to Chicago where she lived with communist artist Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs and married member of the communist party, Charles White. Although she herself did not join the political group, Catlett became a member of a community of artists who “who believed they were caught in between racial and class lines” and used their art to create a more just society (Harrison, online). The couple moved to New York City where Catlett became a student of Ossip Zadkine, who can be accredited for the abstraction of the human form seen in Catlett’s work (Harrison, online). During this time, the United States was characterized by the New Deal, increasing the government attacks on progressive artists, and the McCarthy trials. This political climate was not ideal for Catlett’s goals. In 1946, Catlett won the Julius Rosenwald Fun Fellowship and therefore, was able to move to Mexico (Harrison, online).
The move was intended to be temporary but Catlett returned to the United States only to divorce White. She then moved permanently to Mexico where she studied woodcarving with Jose L. Ruiz and sculpture with Francisco Zuniga. There she married Mexican artist Francisco Mora and together, had three children (RoGallery, online). Catlett then became the first female professor of sculpture and the head of the sculpture department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, School of Fine Arts.
Catlett’s work “champion the cause of underprivileged people of all colors” with a focus on the feminine strength (Harrison, online). Her work depicts portraits of individuals “whose lives she believes have been torn apart by race, class, and governments” (Harrison, online). She played a particular focus on Black expressionalist sculptures. Catlett has had over fifty solo showcases of her artwork featuring famous pieces such as Maternity, Homage to My Young Black Sisters, and Mother and Child. Dying on April 2, 2012 at the age of 96, Catlett promoted the cause of the African American woman, exuding power and strength in all of her work.
Author: Brooke R.
Carr, Dianne, and Louis Carr. "Elizabeth Catlett Biography." The
HistoryMakers. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=1162>.
"Elizabeth Catlett - Biography." Elizabeth Catlett. RoGallery. Web. 12
May 2012. <http://rogallery.com/Catlett_Elizabeth/catlett_bio.htm>.
Harrison, Jeff. "The Art of Elizabeth Catlett." Ann Norton Sculpture
Gardens. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://elizabethcatlett.net/CATLETT_ANSG.pdf>.
Wark, Jayne. "Radical Gestures." McGill- Queens University Press.