Kudos for Elizabeth Catlett
As a black woman making art about people of color, the famed sculptor has lived with controversy. That didn't stop her. And she's still at it.
Updated April 4, 2012: Elizabeth Catlett died Monday, April 2, at the age of 96. In 2011 Valerie Gladstone profiled the celebrated artist while her art was getting stateside attention at the Bronx Museum and at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.
Artist Elizabeth Catlett works almost every day in her sunny studio in Cuernavaca, Mexico, taking afternoons off to knit or cook or swim in her pool. She keeps many of her sculptures -- elegant African-inspired female figures and portrait heads made of bronze, wood and marble -- around her, though recent exhibitions have meant that she has had to send works away. "Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation With 21 Contemporary Artists," at the Bronx Museum, runs through May 29, and "Dígame: Elizabeth Catlett's Forever Love" will be at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University through May 26. (On Monday, Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Root's editor-in-chief, will sit down for a chat with the sculptor at the Du Bois Institute.)
Currently finishing a wood sculpture of an embracing couple, she has had to put it aside for a month for her annual trip to New York for her birthday party, which was on Friday. Most of her life, she has come north -- for many years, with her late husband, the Mexican artist Francisco Mora -- to see her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends. "I love to go to New York," she says, "but I also love to return home. It's quieter, calmer, and I work better."
In Catlett's presence, her friendliness and warmth can make one forget her historical and artistic significance. Hailed for the emotional power of her graphics and figurative and abstract sculptures, she ranks among the great artists of our time. "Elizabeth Catlett is a force of nature," says Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. "For over six decades, she has created unforgettable art that serves as eloquent testimony to the struggles of African Americans, especially women. Whether in works finely wrought in wood and bronze or in her elegiac works on paper, she has given us images of singular power and beauty."
Underlining her link to African-American art and her appreciation of the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Conwill adds, "As a museum professional and a grateful beneficiary of her enormous gifts, I have been struck again and again by Catlett's ability to capture human emotion in a style whose power is both universal and timeless. She has long ago secured her place in the ranks of the most important American artists of her generation."
Catlett has faced many obstacles as an artist, chiefly being an African-African woman who solely depicts black Americans, Native Americans and Mexicans. Moreover, she has also lived in Mexico for the past 60 years, removed from the American art scene. During the McCarthy era, she encountered additional problems, caused by her commitment to the poor and disenfranchised. She was considered a communist for teaching at an allegedly communist school for laborers in Harlem in the 1940s and, later in the decade, for allying with Mexican communist artists who defended workers' rights.
In the '60s she provoked further controversy by supporting the black power movement. She paid a price for her convictions. After becoming a Mexican citizen in 1962 because her husband and their three sons, Francisco, Juan and David, were Mexican citizens, she was denied a visa by the U.S. State Department for nearly 10 years on the grounds that she was an "undesirable alien."
"Elizabeth is concerned with social issues, human rights and civil rights," says Ellen Sragow, her dealer for many years. "Through her art, she speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves. She never compromises. Her work has a clarity that does not need an explanation. It speaks for itself."
"Elizabeth is an amazing multidisciplinary, transnational artist," says Isolde Brielmaier, curator of the Bronx Museum exhibition. "A great deal has been made of her importance as a female artist of color, but not enough attention has been paid to her brilliant technique in printing, painting and sculpture, and the fact that she has worked across borders all of her life."
Catlett showed early signs of greatness. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., the granddaughter of slaves, as a little girl she liked shaping and molding things with her hands. Encouraged by her mother, Mary Carson, a truant officer, she began drawing and in high school carved her first sculpture, using Ivory soap. "I liked to draw," she told The Root, "and I was good at it."
While studying at Howard University, she developed affinities for certain artists, particularly African sculptors, the German expressionists Emil Nolde and Kathe Kollwitz, and the modernists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. She added sculptor Jean Arp and van Gogh to the list as she got older.
At the State University of Iowa in Iowa City, Catlett's teacher, the painter Grant Wood, urged her to portray what she knew best -- which of course were her own people. After receiving the university's first master of fine arts degree in 1940, she accepted a job as head of the art department at Dillard University in New Orleans, already a political activist. The art critic Samella Lewis, who was her student there, recalled, "She confronted police on brutality, bus drivers on segregated seating and college administrators on curriculum."