Celebrating Black Visual Artists: Elizabeth Catlett


Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett is an artist’s artist. Many of the artists I will recognize later this month have studied her but she’s yet another champion who isn’t a household name. And that’s a shame because she just recently passed away in 2012 having left behind a gorgeous body of work.

Catlett, a visionary printmaker and sculptor, was the daughter of Washington DC educators (her father was a mathematics professor at Tuskegee Institute). Though Catlett took an early interest in art, she initially applied to Carnegie Institute of Technology. She was accepted and all ready to go… until the school found out she was Black. That’s alright though. As I’ve said before, it is funny how negative events or really annoying setbacks can blossom into really beautiful developments.


I Am the Negro Woman, 1947

She stayed at home and studied design, drawing and printmaking at Howard University instead. While there, her approach to art was greatly influenced by Alain Locke (the great Harlem Renaissance leader) and James A. Porter (the father of African American Art History who will soon be honored on this blog.) Later on, she also became influenced by Diego Rivera.

Elizabeth Catlett was the first student to graduate with an MFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa. Ever. During her studies there, Catlett was urged to depict Black culture and experience, and to start working in sculpture. Catlett also began to depict Mexican life after relocating to Mexico City where she continued her studies and participated in an artists’ collective. She eventually became a Mexican citizen after being investigated by the U.S. Government for her political stances and so-called “un-American” activities. (Artistic expression is apparently un-American at times.)

Mother and Child, 1956

Now that I’ve become a mom, Catlett’s Mother and Child, 1956 resonates deeply with me as it must for any mom in any corner of the world. The way the sculpted mother’s leg is positioned as if she just sat or will stand again at any minute…what other chore must she complete? What else has been left undone as she tends to her child? But does it even matter as this precious gift from above seeks comfort in her arms? How much longer will she be able to cradle this child this way? What time is left to cherish this moment with the true love of her life? She kisses the child’s head to remind both him and herself of what truly matters most.

To learn earn more about Elizabeth Catlett and her work, click here.


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