I was a young, wide-eyed magazine editor just starting my career when I had the great fortune to meet the artist Elizabeth Catlett. I was working at Essence magazine in the lifestyle department, and one of my beats was the art world. I would go to art openings all over New York City, learning about and meeting black artists who were presenting their work.
It was a fascinating experience, for so many reasons. Even though I grew up in a household where we appreciated fine art and did have paintings made by local black artists hanging on our walls, I had no idea that there were actual black masters. The only masters I knew about were Van Gogh, Matisse, Manet, Picasso and such. I knew nothing of Romare Bearden or Jacob Lawrence — or Elizabeth Catlett — back then. I had no idea that we had our own masters.
I believe it was the art dealer June Kelly, who has long had a gallery in Manhattan, who introduced me to Catlett. In the early 1980s, Catlett was already an acclaimed artist whose work — clay, wood and stone sculptures as well as woodcuts and linocuts — was housed in museums and galleries across the country and beyond.
What a humble woman she was. Gracious and generous, Catlett took time to talk to me about the work she had created thus far, which uniquely documented the stories of African-American people. I remember being mesmerized by the woodcuts and linocuts that she made.
With her hands and a few special tools, she transformed simple pieces of material into stories of triumph and struggle. The piece that drew me in the most is one of her most famous, the 1952 linocut Sharecropper. This carving represents a strong black woman wearing a full-brim hat and proper coat. Her face exudes the power, strength and inward glance of one who is a survivor.
As I crafted the first of several stories I would write about Catlett, I continued my fascination with her, her work and that piece. In those early years, I would see her at various openings for her work in New York and Los Angeles. The artist Samella Lewis wrote a book about Catlett, The Art of Elizabeth Catlett, and I visited with the two of them in Los Angeles when the book came out.
I feel so fortunate that over the years our paths intersected many times. Once, early on, Catlett was visiting New York City with her husband, the Mexican artist Francisco Mora, whom she fondly called Pancho, and she invited me to visit with them at her apartment in lower Manhattan.
I was so excited to come to her space. With a hearty warmth, she welcomed me into her beautifully appointed apartment. She was her normal grounded, sometimes humorous self. I had to take deep breaths to stay calm. I knew by that time I was in the company of a living legend, and I didn't want to seem like a groupie. Thank goodness, her voice had a depth to it that immediately put me at ease.
It was just as thrilling talking to this unassuming icon as it was observing the loving relationship she had with her husband, two legends side by side. As the artist pulled out piece after piece of her work to show me, I was mesmerized.
The stories about black history that I had read and heard during my childhood and later as I matriculated at Howard University — also Catlett's alma mater — came to life before my eyes. She seemed to have carved our history into a broad range of work that showcased the strength, creativity and resilience of African-American people through all manner of hardship. Even as some of the pieces were haunting in their complexity and revelation of our naked truth, Catlett herself seemed hopeful and clear about the inherent power of our cultural heritage and the countless individuals who have led us to become who we are collectively today.
As if it weren't enough to have the artist take me on a journey of her artistic trajectory, the next experience left an indelible impression on my soul. Among the lithographs that Catlett had at her Manhattan pied-à-terre was one of Sharecropper. As I got to see it close up, not even framed, I fell in love all over again. And I timidly asked if it was for sale. With gentle eyes, Elizabeth Catlett not only said, "Yes," but also knowingly offered to let me buy it from her on a payment plan.
She autographed the piece for me, and I took home the very first piece of fine art that I ever bought. I felt so proud on so many levels. This artist, whose life represented an amazing global journey, including being married to two art icons — the legendary Charles White and Mora — had shared a part of her world with me.
Elizabeth Catlett passed away this week at the age of 96. The artist, who lived for many of her later years in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with Mora, was in many ways a citizen of the world. She aged gracefully and frequently visited New York and other cities for art openings and visits with loved ones. Hers was a life well lived. And thanks to how prolific she was, she will live on in our lives and hearts as the true master that she is.
May you rest in peace, dear one.
Harriette Cole is the president of Harriette Cole Media and a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.