Saturday, July 23, 2011

114: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elizabeth Catlett

Dear Followers,

As most of you already know, The Self-Empowered Woman blog strives to be a virtual salon, where we have an on-going opportunity to meet a wide variety of accomplished, interesting women. I think today's blog will both inspire and amaze you.

Elizabeth Catlett is a 96 year old artist/sculptor whose works are currently on view in the Bronx Museum of Art. She has spent a lifetime - both as an artist and educator - using her talent to focus on issues of gender, race, and deprivation. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1915, both her parents (who were teachers in the D.C. school system) were the children of slaves. Catlett was raised by her mother and grandmother because her father died before she was born (1: No Paternal Safety Net).

The recipient of a full scholarship to Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Catlett was turned away - in 1932 - when she arrived at the school and the faculty realized that she was "colored." Seventy-six years later, the same school (now named Carnegie Mellon University) awarded her an honorary doctorate for her lifetime's work as both a sculptor and printmaker (8: Turning No Into Yes).

After being rejected in Pittsburgh, Catlett returned home and attended Howard University where she graduated cum laude in 1935. For the next two years she worked as a high school teacher in North Carolina, but resigned because of the low salaries black teachers received.

She then entered the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History, where she studied sculpture for the first time. American landscape painter Grant Wood encouraged her (and his other students) to work with subjects that they knew best. For her, this meant Black people, especially Black women. Catlett has said that Wood was always "so kind," and always called her "Miss Catlett" (4: Supportive Someone). In 1940, she became the school's first student to receive an MFA in Sculpture.

She also studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago, and lithography at the Art Students League in New York. Catlett then became a university teacher in New Orleans, and she also taught in Harlem. During this time, she was briefly married to Charles White (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

In 1945, while working on a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship Grant, Catlett was told that the grant would be renewed inf she left New York. Her goal was to complete a project about Black women , so in 1946 she moved to Mexico City where her social life included Diego Rivera, Francisco Zuniga and Frida Kahlo. During this time, she joined the Graphic Arts Workshop, and in 1948, she married the printmaker/painter Francisco Mora, with whom she had three sons (all of whom are involved in the arts). The political climate - in the post-McCarthy years - was hostile to Catlett's race, class and gender concerns, and in 1958, even the Mexican officials arrested Catlett and told her she was "unwelcome" in their country. That's when she decided to become a Mexican citizen. When the U.S. Government labeled her "an undesirable foreigner" and refused to let her into the country (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest) to be with her sick mother, she and her husband brought her mother to Mexico to live with them.

Catlett always refused to accept restriction and discrimination. When she taught at Dillard University in New Orleans (1940 - 1942), African Americans were not allowed to enter City Park, where Delgado Museum was housed. A Picasso retrospective was being shown, and Catlett wanted her Art History students to see it even though they were not allowed on the grounds. A teacher at Sophie Newcomb College helped her to get the students into the museum on a Monday, when it was closed to the general public. Many of Catlett's students had never been in an art museum before, but she was willing to break all the rules on their behalf (11: Risk Addition).

Catlett has outlived both of her husbands and most of her colleagues, but continues - in her 90s to make "technically savvy and stunning" art (7: Magnificent Obsession). How amazing that this talented artist, the granddaughter of slaves, is today the grandmother of Naima Mora, who was the Cycle4 winner of America's Next Top Model.

Looking forward to your comments...

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your posting on Ms Catlett. It seems her life has been spent breaking one barrier after the next- color, gender, political. She is certainly a very brave and talented woman who has used her time here on earth to fight to make it a better place both for herself and future generations of artists of all colors.

    Though she is 96 as of this posting- I hope she lives for another 96 years in good health, happy and staying artistically productive.