Born just months after the First World War drew to a close, Elizabeth Catlett developed into one of the leading African-American artists and educators of the twentieth century. Her studies included design, printmaking, and drawing at Howard University, where she was strongly influenced by James A. Porter. Catlett went on to earn an MFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa in 1940 — the first student ever to do so. During that time, she began to concentrate on using African Americans as her subject matter.
Soon after receiving her MFA, Catlett was appointed head of the art department at Dillard University, teaching art history, art appreciation, and studio art. One of her students was Samella Lewis, the great African-American artist and teacher. (More information on Samella Lewis may be found [permalink url=”98″]here[/permalink].) While at Dillard, Catlett endured criticism for her political activism. Her opinions drew the criticism of university administrators, leading to Catlett’s departure in the spring of 1942. She went on to study lithography at the Art Students League in New York from 1942 to 1943, and sculpture with sculptor Ossip Zadkine in New York in 1943.
Catlett also taught sculpture at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem for two years before being awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1946 for a series of works on black women. Supported by the fellowship, she moved to Mexico that same year, where she created prints at the Taller de Grafica Popular — the People’s Graphic Workshop. She also studied woodcarving with Jose L. Ruiz and ceramic sculpture with Francisco Zuniga at the Escuela de Pinta y Escultura.
In 1958, she became the first woman to teach at the National University of Mexico’s School of Fine Arts as a professor of sculpture. Within a year, she was promoted to the position of director of the sculpture department where she remained until her retirement in 1979.
Though primarily known as a sculptor, Elizabeth Catlett has also created a significant body of work as a printmaker. Madonna (1982) is a lithograph print, a reproduction technique in which the artist first creates an image on fine-grained sandstone (or aluminum plate) with a grease-based implement such as a pencil, crayon or wash. Via a multi-stepped process, the image is fixed to the stone, inked, and transferred to paper by means of a press. The significance of Catlett’s printmaking is enhanced by the artist’s reminder that a print “is a suitable medium for public art — easy and inexpensive and you can make the editions as large as you need them.”
Whether working as a printmaker or sculptor, Catlett has ever upheld her commitment to revealing a “black aesthetic,” one that would empower black artists and viewers. In Madonna, she transforms the traditional motif of Mary and the infant Jesus into an African-American madonna and child. Catlett deeply wished “public art to have meaning for Black people, so that they will have some art they can identify with, so they will be encouraged to explore what the museums and galleries have to offer them.”
Written by Amanda Kang (SC ’10) and Colleen Salomon, Williamson Gallery Assistant.