Pioneering artist, master sculptor and printmaker, Elizabeth Catlett passed on April 2 at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She was 96. Catlett was one of the few remaining links to the great Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's and '30's, and counted Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Roberson, Thurgood Marshall and Jacob Lawrence among her friends. Her groundbreaking work, which featured strong, graceful and elegant depictions of black women, cemented her place as one of the most important American artists of the 20th Century despite her having live most of her life in Mexico.
Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 1919 to schoolteachers, John and Mary Carson Catlett. She attended the famed Dunbar High School where she decided on a career as an artist. She won a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pa, but was denied because of her race. She studied design and drawing at Howard University and graduated cum laude in 1935 and was the first student to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1940.
During the infamous McCarthy era of the 1940s and '50s, hundreds of artists, both black and white, including Catlett, were accused of communist sympathies and were driven underground.
In 1946, Catlett won a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship and went to Mexico to study wood and ceramic sculpture at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura in Esmerelsa. The following year, she married artist Francisco Victor Mora and became a Mexican citizen. The couple had three sons.
Catlett is most noted for her sculptures of the female nude. She began working in wood, studying wood carving with Jose L. Ruiz from 1955 to 1959. Catlett described her work as representations of black women and herself.
" I am a black woman. I use my body in working. When I am bathing or dressing, I see and feel how my body looks and moves. I never do sculpture from a nude model... Mostly I watch women."
From 1958 to 1975, Catlett taught at the National Autonomous University of Mexico where she was the first female professor of sculpture.
Her work, though popular in Mexico, was not as well known in the United States until 1993 when her sculptures were selected for exhibition at the June Kelly Gallery in New York. After that, her work was featured in solo exhibitions across the country.
Over the past 25 years, Catlett's prints and sculptures have found renewed appreciation and have been exhibited in major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum Her prints have been exhibited worldwide.
Catlett's sculptures and prints were recognized by the Women's Caucus for Art the International Sculpture Center, for whom she received a Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award in 2003.
To see the work of this important African American artist, visit www.elizabethcatlett.net.