CUERNAVACA, Mexico–Time and age have slowed legendary black sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett, but just short of her 95th birthday, the lioness in winter is still hot stuff.
Brilliant in conversation, with a dry wit and naughty twinkle in her eyes, she gestures with her long hands and fingers at her home here, about 40 miles south of Mexico City.
Born April 15, 1915, in Washington, D.C., she has lived mostly in Mexico since 1946. Her second husband and father of her three sons, painter Francisco Mora, was Mexican.
After a McCarthy-era U.S. consul summoned her to the U.S. Embassy in 1955 and demanded that both she and her accompanying 8-year-old son provide lists of all the Communists they knew, she eventually became a Mexican citizen. In the National Museum of Art in Mexico City, she is called a Mexican.
For years, she was refused U.S. entry as an “undesirable alien.” That did eventually change, and she has kept an apartment in New York City since the 1970s. During the Clinton administration, she got a letter saying that she had indeed not renounced her U.S. citizenship and that she should come to the embassy for her passport. She now holds dual citizenship. Regular searches at U.S. airports ended about two years ago, she said.
And even though she was bed-ridden as she received a recent afternoon visitor–she hadn’t slept well the night before and since last September had fractured her pelvis in two places in a fall and is recovering from pneumonia–she is still working.
As witnessed by her 10-foot sculpture of gospel great Mahalia Jackson, now at the foundry, that is to be inaugurated in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood this spring, not far from her 1975 statue of Louis Armstrong. And by her show in early June at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk.
For the Chrysler exhibition, she is executing a “Woman and Child” wood sculpture on commission with her youngest son, David Mora, 58, her assistant since age 12. In both cases, she did the drawings and terracotta models for the works.
These are the latest works in a very long career noted for using her art to call attention to the beauty, and problems, of black folk, poor folk and especially black women.
A granddaughter of slaves, Catlett is now financially comfortable, and her works are in the permanent collections of many major museums. Syracuse University will award her latest honorary doctorate in June.
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.