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Elizabeth Catlett merged art, social justice
Catlett's work embraced a range of mediums, but much of her work featured the strength of African-American women.
April 4th, 2012
07:10 PM ET

Elizabeth Catlett merged art, social justice

By Stephanie Siek, CNN

(CNN) – Elizabeth Catlett, a leading African-American sculptor, painter and printmaker for much of the last hundred years, died Monday at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She was 96.

"She's had to struggle as a woman, as an artist," said June Kelly, whose New York gallery has represented Catlett’s sculpture since 1993. "But she never wavered. That's what I found so marvelous about her - in knowing who she is, and never faltering about how she looked at the world, and women, and how she saw them forging ahead into society and making a place for themselves."

Born in Washington, D.C., Catlett was 16 when she was accepted with a scholarship to the Carnegie Technical Institute, now Carnegie Mellon University. But when she showed up at the campus in Pittsburgh, they turned her away because she was African-American. Later recognizing its mistake, Carnegie Mellon awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2008.

Catlett went on to earn her bachelor's degree in art at Howard University in 1935. Five years later, she became the first student to earn a master's degree in sculpture at the University of Iowa, where she was not allowed to live in the university dormitories and instead lived with local African-American families.

Catlett moved to Mexico in 1946 on a fellowship to study woodcarving at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura. She was invited to join a group of socially conscious Mexico City artists called the Taller de Grafica Popular (People's Graphic Workshop), and produced pamphlets, posters and other art related to anti-war, labor rights and anti-facist causes. The next year she married Mexican artist Francisco Mora and moved permanently to Mexico. She became the first woman to chair the sculpture department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1959.

The grandchild of former slaves, Catlett often addressed themes related to civil rights and African-American culture in her art. Some of her most famous works depict African-American women, like the 1968 linocut "Sharecropper," the 1968 sculpture "Homage to My Young Black Sisters," as well as "Negro Mother and Child," the wooden carving for which she won first prize at the 1940 American Negro Exposition. She was also influenced by Mexican art – both folk art and that of modern artists like her friends, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

Catlett's 1956 terra cotta sculpture "Mother and Child."

"She saw it as an amalgamation – a coming together," Kelly said. "She saw the same kind of struggle, I think, for women – most of her art was about women, especially African-American women. She used women [as representations] for struggle, for justice, for maternal instinct. She used the beauty of her art to show the world the beauty of what was there."

Catlett is survived by her three sons, Francisco, Juan and David; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren, according to an obituary in the Los Angeles Times. Her husband Francisco Mora died in 2002.

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Filed under: Black in America • History • Race • Social justice • Who we are • Women
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Marquise

    What a sterling role model for African-American young women. She celerated her Blackness in such a gentle loving way.

    April 11, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. N in Beverly Hills

    Shame she had to struggle so hard and die son young... Another great American dieing in the country she loved and cherished... We will miss her... Her greatness came from her color...

    April 5, 2012 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Tasha

      I hardly think living to 96 is dying so young. She was truly one of the greats.

      April 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. david esmay

    Another great Hawkeye alum has passed. She was a student of Grant Wood and the first MFA in sculpture, man woman , white , or black. The U of Iowa has a long liberal tradition, as does Iowa City. The dorms are for under-grads, and age was probably the factor, not race. Iowa was the first Big Ten school with african-american football players, 1895, Duke Slater, first african american all-american 1921, Slater residence hall is named after him. First african- american team captain Homer Harris 1937. G. Alexander Clark first AA to earn a law degree 1879. She represents the best of Hawkeye traditions.

    April 5, 2012 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
  4. Ruby

    We have lost a great voice in the art world.

    April 4, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Donald in CA

    What a great lady May she rest in peace.

    April 4, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse |