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Elizabeth Catlett: In the Image of the People

by Melanie Herzog


Elizabeth Catlett's prints cry out in protest, proclaim solidarity, demand justice, and celebrate the determination, staunch resistance, and, at times against all odds, sheer survival of ordinary people. For more than sixty years, first in the United States and then in Mexico, Catlett has produced politically charged and aesthetically compelling graphic images of what matters most to her -- the lives of everyday people, the heroines and heroes of African American and Latin American liberation movements. Printmaking for Catlett is a consciously political practice. At the same time, however, her prints -- some intricately detailed and others elegantly spare -- manifest her understanding that the power of an image resides in the artist's command of form, sensitivity to materials, and technical proficiency. As an artist for whom community is fundamentally important, Catlett is steadfastly convinced that her art must speak clearly to her audience, and the clarity and eloquence of the visual language she employs derive from her ongoing engagement with both artists and non-artists. Indeed, it is people that matter most to her.


Early Years: Forging a Vision of Art, Politics, and Community

Elizabeth Catlett was born in Washington, D.C., on April 15, 1915. Her father, a professor of mathematics at the Tuskegee Institute, died several months before her birth; to support their three children, Catlett's mother, also educated as a teacher, worked as a truant officer in Washington's public schools. The stories of slavery that her grandmother related and her mother's accounts of the anguish she witnessed in the slums of the nation's capital shaped Catlett's early awareness of the suffering and exploitation of black people in the United States, and laid the groundwork for Catlett's sense of identity as a black woman and her determination to give voice to black women through her art. Although few African American women at the time were practicing artists, and art museums in the segregated South were closed to African Americans, Catlett was determined to become an artist, an ambition strongly supported by her family.[1] She took her first steps toward that goal by enrolling at Howard University in Washington in 1931.

During the 1930s, Howard University was a center for lively debates about the role of the African American artist and modernist practice. Catlett worked with leading figures in African American art: she was introduced to the linocut process by James Lesesne Wells, and she studied art history with James Herring, design with Lois Mailou Jones, and painting and life drawing with James Porter. Catlett has credited Porter with demonstrating to her the discipline necessary to be an artist, and bringing to her attention the work of the Mexican muralists who played a key part in her decision first to visit and then move to Mexico in the following decade.[2] After her graduation, cum laude, from Howard with a bachelor of science degree in art in 1935, she taught for two years in the public schools in Durham, North Carolina, where she participated with lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall in an unsuccessful effort to gain equal pay for black teachers. Finding little time for her own art, however, Catlett decided to pursue graduate study at the University of Iowa, with the aim of teaching at the college level.

Catlett of course discovered that Iowa City was quite a different environment from the segregated black communities of Washington and Durham; she was one of only two African American students in the university's art department. She went to Iowa to study painting with Grant Wood, whose disciplined, methodical process of working and reworking an image has remained central to her own artistic practice, as has his exhortation that she take as her subject what she knows best. But sculpture became the focus of her graduate work, and in 1940 Catlett received the first master of fine arts degree earned in sculpture at the University of Iowa.

That fall Catlett began teaching at Dillard University in New Orleans, and found herself challenging Southern segregation in order to introduce her students to the world of art. While in Iowa, Catlett had gone with a group of students to see a large Picasso exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. When this show came to the Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art), she was determined that her students, the majority of whom had never been to an art museum, should see it. Though not itself closed to African Americans, the Delgado was nonetheless located in a city park where African Americans were not allowed; undaunted, Catlett had her students bused directly to the museum's door. Samella Lewis, one of these students and now a preeminent scholar of African American art, has written that "for the Dillard students, Elizabeth Catlett was a commanding and fascinating individual. Although she looked like many of the traditional ladies of the South, her manner and actions were very different."[3]

Between her first and second year at Dillard, Catlett spent the summer of 1941 in Chicago, where she studied lithography at the South Side Community Art Center and ceramics at the Art Institute, and she resumed her work in sculpture. She lived with Margaret Burroughs (then Margaret Goss), one of the founders of the South Side Community Art Center, which was rapidly becoming the focus of artistic production and interaction for Chicago's thriving community of black writers, playwrights, and visual artists.[4] Among these artists was Charles White, who became Catlett's first husband. An overtly political stance distinguished this "Chicago Renaissance" from New York's Harlem Renaissance of the previous decade, for these young artists were radicalized by the economic devastation of the Great Depression and by the broadening reach of fascism in Europe. Influenced to varying degrees by left-wing organizations, including the Communist Party, they formed coalitions and friendships across racial divides, just as through their art they challenged racial and class oppression, which they regognized as interlinked.[5] Catlett's introduction in Chicago to this dynamic and impassioned community of socially engaged artists galvanized her political consciousness and her recognition of the energizing power of art within a community.

In 1942 Catlett and White moved to New York. Catlett pursued lithography with Harry Sternberg at the Art Students League and sculpture with Ossip Zadkine, who had recently arrived as a refugee from the Nazi occupation of France. But the experience that had the strongest impact on Catlett during these years was her involvement with the George Washington Carver School, a community school for the working people of Harlem, where Catlett taught sculpture and sewing and served as promotion director from 1944 until her departure for Mexico in 1946.[6]

Catlett's students at the Carver School opened her eyes to the realization that her own middle-class background had until that time foreclosed her understanding of the daily existence of working-class and poor African Americans. They also inspired her conviction that her art should be addressed to the ordinary people whom she describes as "hungry for culture." In a 1981 address she spoke of "a lesson that began a change in my life's direction" at the Carver school:

About 350 of us were squeezed into a small room, sweating on a hot June night, with the windows and shades drawn [because of the World War II blackout] -- most uncomfortable, listening to Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. A professor from the Juilliard Music School had come to play this tape for our students, who were mostly from Harlem's poor people-janitors, day workers, laundresses, cooks, elevator operators, and so on-poor black people who served others.
When the first movement ended, the professor explained that since the second movement was very long we would take a break to refresh ourselves with some cold punch. Our students politely refused. They said, "No, the break can wait. We want to hear it all together." Now, ignorant me! I had thought they weren't interested in classical music.[7]

Not surprisingly, Catlett's involvement at the Carver School also left her with little time for her art. Therefore, when a Rosenwald Fellowship she had received in 1945 was renewed for a second year, she realized she would have to leave New York in order to complete her proposed project, a series of linoleum cuts, paintings, and sculpture depicting the oppression, struggles, and achievements of black women-a series directly inspired by her work at the Carver School. Catlett and White chose to go to Mexico because they were interested in its revolutionary murals and graphic art. Catlett also privately hoped that this sojourn might help their failing marriage.

Their interest in revolutionary Mexican art was shared by a number of African American artists, as well as artists of other ethnicities. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance were motivated by the Mexican muralists' visual articulation of an indigenous mexicanidad that was fused with folk art, especially as they themselves looked to the "ancestral arts" of Africa and expressed pride in their African American heritage and identity.[8] During the 1930s and early 1940s the class consciousness of Mexican muralists and graphic artists resonated most strongly with the politics of the Chicago Renaissance artists and other socially engaged artists in the United States.[9] In addition to their social commitment, Catlett found inspiration in the Mexican artists' direct engagement with the experiences of ordinary people, their deliberately accessible style, and their centrality in the formation of a liberatory Mexican identity-all of which were important to her as she took as her subject the lives and experiences of African American women. She intended to spend a year in Mexico City studying sculpture at "La Esmeralda," the government-run art school, and working as a guest artist at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (People's Graphic Arts Workshop). Instead, after several months she returned to the United States to end her marriage, and then went back to Mexico in 1947 to establish permanent residence.


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