Happy 95th Birthday, Elizabeth Catlett!

The renowned sculptor has reconciled with her native country, and at 95, she continues to produce great art.

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She won a scholarship to Carnegie Tech, but was refused enrollment when they figured out she was black. Instead, she earned a bachelor's of science in art from Howard University in 1935. ("Cum laude," she still notes proudly.) Her teachers included philosopher Alain Locke, sometimes called the father of the Harlem Renaissance, who was encouraging artists to reflect Africa and the black experience in their work and lives.

Her father had taught mathematics at Tuskegee, but died before she was born. Her mother, who scrubbed floors to support her three children before becoming a D.C. truant officer, scraped together the money for her first semester at Howard, with the understanding that she had to earn a scholarship thereafter. She did.

After Howard, she was art supervisor for teachers at nine black elementary schools in Durham, N.C. She was not a happy camper in the seriously Jim Crow South. But at what was then North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham (North Carolina Central since 1969), she said she got a catalogue from visitors who were grad students at Iowa. She applied to Iowa and was admitted. Tuition was $80 a semester.

Painter Grant Wood ("American Gothic") became her mentor even as her interests turned more toward sculpture. Wood, she says, got the department to grant her and a male student Iowa's first master's of fine arts in sculpture in 1940.

In those days, Iowa MFA grads were often hired to head college art departments. So she was insulted when the only suggestion from her department head mentioned was maybe teaching art and music in a St. Louis high school. She didn't do music anyway and said, "I'll find my own job."

She taught art at Dillard University in New Orleans, studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago and lithography at the Art Students League in New York. During World War II, she taught at the George Washington Carver School on 125th Street in Harlem, where poet Gwendolyn Brooks was the principal. She said she taught women how to make dresses and talked about how to make their lives better.

It was there that she met her first husband, African-American artist Charles White. Meanwhile, she had won a Julius Rosenwald fellowship to support her art-making. "But I was teaching women how to make dresses, and I wasn't doing any art," she said. "So it was suggested to me that I really ought to go somewhere else, maybe Mexico. I said, ‘Mexico?' They said, ‘Uh-huh.' I said, ‘Do I have to take my husband?' They said, ‘Uh-huh.'"

So Catlett came to Mexico in 1946 and joined the highly political Taller de Gráfica Popular (The People's Graphic Arts Workshop) in Mexico City.

There, the likes of famed Mexican artists Pablo O'Higgins, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo regularly attended the Friday night sessions to discuss projects for the coming week, such as posters to highlight the lack of enough public schools. Suffice it to say, at home and abroad, she knew virtually everybody in the art world.

At Iowa, Wood had encouraged Catlett to represent her enduring attention to the plight of black women in her art. And in Mexico, she found room for others of the world's dispossessed, notably indigenous women.