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.
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.
While at the Taller, she met Mora and divorced White. In 1947, she was pregnant with her eldest, Francisco (now a New York-based jazz percussionist who lived for many years in Detroit), when her mother visited and made clear she wanted them to marry. "In Mexico," where "free unions" have legal standing, "it didn't matter," she said, "but to my mother, it did. So we got married. We were very poor, but very happy."
Her son, Juan, a filmmaker based in Mexico City, was born in 1949. David, her collaborator, has a house next to his mother's in Cuernavaca, but lives most of the year with his wife and three children in Hamburg. Catlett has 11 grandchildren.
In 1958, Catlett became the first woman professor at the School of Fine Arts of Mexico's National Autonomous University, the oldest art school in the Americas. She taught there until retiring in 1975.
For many years, she sold her work mostly to visitors from the United States for not very much money. When times were especially tough, she said, her husband, nicknamed "Poncho," would "put some paintings under his arm and go sell them to people he knew." He died in 1973.
Catlett's son, David, said that his mother's financial fortunes began to change with an article by Mark Crawford in Ebony magazine around 1969. That helped generate a market for her work among affluent African Americans. Catlett said that her New York gallery priced the Mahalia Jackson sculpture at $500,000. She is donating half of that to the city's reconstruction.
As Samella Lewis quoted Catlett 32 years ago in her book Art: African American, "I have always wanted my art to service black people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential. Learning how to do this and passing that learning on to other people have been my goals."
Morris Thompson has been based in Mexico for 15 of the past 26 years.