- Elizabeth Catlett
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"I learned how you use your art for the service of people, struggling people, to whom only realism is meaningful."—Elizabeth Catlett
"I have always wanted my art to service my people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential … "—Elizabeth Catlett
"Among other things, I learned that my sculpture and my prints had to be based on the needs of people. These needs determine what I do."—Elizabeth Catlett
When Elizabeth Catlett died at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on April 2, 2012, a number of US American newspapers were quick to acknowledge her passing—for example, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times. The journalists for these newspapers and some others, who wrote about this nationally and internationally received artist, had nothing significant themselves to say about Elizabeth Catlett, a major American and Mexican printmaker and sculptor. However, one or two of these journalists assigned to write about this iconic artist did have the foresight and respect to quote from such specialists as Samella Lewis and Lowery Stokes Sims, each of whom is fully qualified to comment on African American and European American artists in general, as well as on Elizabeth Catlett in particular. As I read the different reports on her passing, I was relieved to read Adriana Gomez Licon's short piece on the artist for the Associated Press. Writing from a well informed and a seemingly intimate knowledge of the artist and her oeuvre and the communities to which the artist first addresses her work and from where she mines her images, Licon wrote that "[t] he smooth, stylized faces she [Catlett] sculpted were less about individual people and more about the dignity and nobility of universal man, woman and child—sculpture that's meant to comfort, uplift and inspire." Elizabeth Catlett's "prints," Licon continues, "expressed her lifelong commitment to use art as a tool for social change, often incorporating the slogans ('Black Is Beautiful') and revolutionary heroes (Angela Davis and Malcolm X) of the civil rights and black power movements."
Art is important only to the extent that it helps in the liberation of our people. It is necessary only at this moment as an aid to our survival.—Elizabeth Catlett
Alice Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), a sculptor and graphic artist, was born April 15, 1915, in Washington, DC, into a middle-class family. Her father, who died before she was born, taught mathematics at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). John H. and Mary Carson Catlett, Elizabeth's parents, were each descendants of enslaved black Americans, and one of Elizabeth's grandmothers frequently related stories to her and her two siblings about the enslavement of black people on Southern plantations. And the young Elizabeth Catlett was soon to realize that elements of Southern white racism existed in the North. Before entering Howard University for undergraduate studies, Catlett sought admission to Carnegie [End Page 1000] Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon), but white racist administrators of Carnegie, finding out that she was black, revoked her admissions and refused to admit her to study at the institute. In 1937, Elizabeth Catlett graduated cum laude from Howard University, where she had the opportunity to study with the likes of Loïs Mailou Jones and Alain Locke. It was inevitable that she would meet other distinguished professors in Howard's Department of Art—e.g., James Herring, James Porter, and James Wells.
Shortly after she graduated from Howard University, Catlett had her first extended Deep South experience when she taught high school in Durham, NC, her mother's hometown, where state sanctioned racial segregation prevailed in its most vile form throughout all public spaces. And when she later became interested in the landscape paintings of Grant Wood, she would soon enter the University of Iowa, where he taught her courses in drawing and painting. In 1940, she received an MFA degree in art—however, with a specialty in sculpture, which...