Beauty & Dignity: Honoring Elizabeth Catlett

02/15/2018     News and Film

Freeman 's is celebrating Black History Month by highlighting prominent African American artists whose work has shaped their field.Elizabeth Catlett was a noted sculptor and graphic artist, who used her work to advocate for social change. The grandchild of freed slaves on both sides, Catlett was born in 1915 in Washington, D.C. She attended Howard University, the historically black college in her hometown, after her acceptance to Carnegie Mellon was rescinded after the University learned of her race. Catlett later received her M.F.A. in sculpture from the University of Iowa—the first ever given by the school.At the time of her studies, the Civil Rights movement was still more than two decades away; the premise of “separate but equal” when it came to public education would not be struck down by the Supreme Court for another 21 years.  The strides she made as a professional, African-American, woman artist are stunning when viewed through the lens of the political and social climate of the time.“The purpose of my art is to present black people in their beauty and dignity for ourselves and others to understand and enjoy.”After completing her Masters, Catlett split her time between New Orleans, working at Dillard University, and Chicago, studying ceramics at the Art Institute. She moved to Harlem in 1942, where she taught adult classes and continued her education, taking up lithography at the Art Students League of New York. In 1946, Catlett received a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation, founded by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, which allowed her to move to Mexico City. She joined the political group of printmakers, Taller de Gráfica Popular, through which she met her second husband, artist Francisco Mora, with whom she would later have three sons. She lived for much of her life in Mexico, where she was a professor  at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas for close to 20 years, beginning in 1958. She was the first female professor of sculpture, and later became the head of the department. Catlett 's work was grounded in her identity as a black woman, with the focus of much of her art on the power and struggle of African Americans. Her lithographs captured Harriet Tubman, Malcom X, and the more anonymous figures of sharecroppers and often forgotten people who Catlett felt deserved to be highlighted. She was also fascinated by the human condition, and the relationship between mother and child.Over the course of her lifetime, she was the recipient of countless awards, critical acclaim, and recognition. She eventually received an honorary degree from Carnegie Mellon, the school that had previously barred her entry. Earlier this year, the gallery Burning in Water in New York hosted an exhibition of Catlett 's work. Titled “Elizabeth Catlett: Wake Up in Glory,” (taken from the line of a Christian gospel) the exhibit focused mostly on her sculpture, with works in bronze, marble, and wood. Her artwork is included among the permanent collections of The Met, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and The National Museum of African American History & Culture, among others.Catlett died in 2012, at the age of 96. She worked until her final days.