Elizabeth Catlett, pioneering D.C.-born artist, dies at 96

April 3, 2012

Elizabeth Catlett, whose depictions of the strength and dignity of African American women made her one of the 20th century’s most important artists, died April 2 at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She was 96.

Her son Francisco Mora Catlett announced her death but did not provide a cause.

Ms. Catlett, who was born in Washington, was a sculptor and printmaker who followed her own determined vision to become what poet Maya Angelou once called a “queen of the arts.”

Early in her career, Ms. Catlett decided that her art should serve a social purpose and be accessible to as many people as possible. With that in mind, she created figurative portrayals of African American life that have become prized by museums and collectors, including Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby.

Although she had lived in Mexico since 1946, Ms. Catlett was one of the few remaining links to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Her friends included such storied African American thinkers and artists as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall and Jacob Lawrence.

“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,” Ms. Catlett told author Samella Lewis in her 1978 book “Art: African American.”

For years, Ms. Catlett was denied entry to the United States because of suspected Communist sympathies, and her art was seldom seen in the land of her birth. Yet, in the past 25 years, her prints and sculptures have been exhibited worldwide and have entered the collections of major museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

“She’s really one of the foremost African American artists of the 20th century,” Melanie Anne Herzog, an art history professor at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis., and author of “Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico,” said in an interview. “She was a tremendous inspiration to other artists in the African American tradition and in Mexico.”

Ms. Catlett created large-scale sculptures of musicians Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson, as well as evocative prints of many black leaders, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X. But many of her most powerful works depict ordinary people.

In her 1952 linoleum print “Sharecropper,” a woman with white hair and a lean face framed by a wide straw hat gazes off to the side, with her blouse fastened by a safety pin. The static image acquires an internal sense of motion from the thousands of tiny cuts in a linoleum block made by Ms. Catlett.

Her sculptures, however, often reach toward a broader, metaphorical vision, without abandoning the human form.

“I want the ordinary person to be able to relate to what I am doing,” she told New Orleans magazine in 1984. “Working figuratively is the dues I must, want and am privileged to pay so that ordinary people can relate to my work and not get lost trying to figure out what it means.”

Alice Elizabeth Catlett was born in Washington on June 15, 1915. Her father, a mathematics teacher who made wood carvings, died before she was born. Ms. Catlett was raised by her mother, who worked as a truant officer, and her grandparents, three of whom had been slaves.

After graduating from Dunbar High School, Ms. Catlett won a scholarship to a forerunner of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, only to have the offer withdrawn after university officials realized that she was black. (The university gave her an honorary doctorate in 2008.)

Ms. Catlett enrolled instead at Howard University, from which she graduated in 1935. She taught in North Carolina before going to graduate school at the University of Iowa, where in 1940 she earned the university’s first master’s degree in sculpture.

During the next few years, she taught at Dillard University in New Orleans and Virginia’s Hampton Institute while doing additional studies in Chicago and New York. In New York, Ms. Catlett taught at a Harlem school of continuing education for working people. (The principal was poet Gwendolyn Brooks.) While there, Ms. Catlett became committed to creating art that would somehow ennoble the working poor.

“She would say art is a way to wake people up,” Herzog said. “She saw herself as a strongly engaged artist.”

In 1946, Ms. Catlett received a fellowship to study in Mexico, where she became part of a graphic arts collective called Taller de Grafica Popular. She became friends with such acclaimed artists as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco.

After a divorce from her first husband, Charles White, Ms. Catlett married Mexican artist Francisco Mora in 1947 and settled in Mexico City and later Cuernavaca. In the late 1950s, she became the head of the sculpture department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where she taught (in Spanish) until the mid-1970s.

Her husband died in 2002. Survivors include three sons, film director Juan Mora Catlett of Mexico City, jazz drummer Francisco Mora Catlett of New York and David Mora Catlett of Hamburg, Germany, and Cuernavaca, who worked as his mother’s assistant; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. One of her granddaughters, model and actress Naima Mora, won the reality TV show “America’s Next Top Model” in 2005.

In the 1950s, Ms. Catlett was summoned to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and asked to divulge the names of any Communists she might have known. In 1962, she became a Mexican citizen and was declared an “undesirable alien” by the U.S. government.

She couldn’t travel freely in the United States for years, but she later kept an apartment in New York. Her U.S. citizenship was reinstated in 2002.

When Ms. Catlett was a graduate student in Iowa, her primary teacher was Grant Wood, who painted “American Gothic.” Wood told Ms. Catlett that she should concentrate on making art about what she knew best.

“The thing that I knew the most about,” Ms. Catlett said in a 1993 NPR interview, “was black women, because I am one, and I lived with them all my life, so that’s what I started working with.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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