Elizabeth Catlett – Artist & Advocate for Social Change

Elizabeth Catlett  attended Howard University, where her teachers included artist Lois Mailou Jones and philosopher Alain Locke. She graduated with honors in 1935 and went on to earn the first MFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa five years later.*

In 1946, Catlett accepted an invitation to work in Mexico City’s Taller de Grafica Popular, a collective graphic arts and mural workshop. There she cultivated the theme for her work, the African American woman. In 1947, she produced her first major show “I am a Negro Woman,” a series of sculptures, prints, and paintings through a Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship, which toured black women’s colleges in the South. That same year she married Mexican painter Francisco Mora. A lively community of artists surrounded her and Mora, including Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo. From 1958 through 1976, she directed the sculpture department at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.****

I am the Negro Woman, Elizabeth Catlett, 1947, Linocut on paper, 5 1/2 x 5 in. (13.97 x 12.7 cm.)

During this period she produced realistic and highly stylized two- and three-dimensional figures. Her subjects ranged from tender maternal images to confrontational symbols of the Black Power movement, to portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and the writer Phyllis Wheatley.*

In 1993, Catlett received her first New York City exhibition since 1971 and in 1998 the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York honored her with a fifty year retrospective. Her paintings and sculptures were in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the New Orleans Museum of Art.****

In a career spanning more than 70 years, Elizabeth Catlett has created sculptures that celebrate the heroic strength and endurance of African-American and Mexican working-class women. With simple, clear shapes she evokes both the physical and spiritual essence of her subjects. Her hardy laborers and nurturing mothers radiate both power and a timeless dignity and calm. Whether working in wood, stone, bronze, or clay, Catlett reveals an extraordinary technical virtuosity, a natural ability to meld her curving female forms with the grain, whorls, color, or luster of her chosen medium. The beauty of her subjects is matched by the beauty she reveals in her sculptural materials.**

Elizabeth Catlett’s 1968 sculpture Homage to My Young Black Sisters


Catlett’s sculpture Homage to My Young Black Sisters is one of Catlett’s better-known works: a life-sized personification of feminine black power. It’s a brown figure of a woman standing defiantly upright, fist raised in the air.***

During the past 40 years, museums and galleries have held more than 50 solo exhibitions of Elizabeth Catlett’s sculptures and prints, including important retrospectives in 1993 and 1998. Catlett continued to make art through her mid-90s,  while dividing her time between New York and Cuernavaca.*

Elizabeth Catlett passed away on April 4, 2012 at age 96.****




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