Alice Elizabeth Catlett was born in Washington DC in 1915 (or 1919), the youngest of three children. Both of her parents were educators, and she, too, chose a profession that blended education as well as the arts. She studied design, printmaking and drawing at Howard University and received her B.S. degree in 1935. Working as a high school teacher in North Carolina, Catlett left the position after two years, because low wages available to African-Americans. In 1940 Catlett became the first student to receive an M.F.A. in sculpture at the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History. While there, she studied with Grant Wood, at whose urging Catlett began to work with the subject of African-Americans, especially black women.
Catlett moved to Chicago in 1941, studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago, and printmaking at the Art Students League of New York in 1942-1943. After graduation she moved to New Orleans to teach at the historically black institution Dillard University, and met and married Charles White. Five years later, after her divorce from White, she left New Orleans for New York to study with the sculptor Ossip Zadkine. He encouraged Catlett to work in a more abstract direction. While in New York, she became the Promotion Director of Harlem’s George Washington Carver School which boasted famed photographer Roy DeCarava as one of their students.
In 1946, Catlett received a fellowship that allowed her to travel to Mexico where she studied at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura, Esmeralda, Mexico. In 1947, she married Mexican artist Francisco Mora, settled there permanently, and later become a Mexican citizen. Eventually she gave up her American citizenship and was declared an ‘undesirable alien’ by the US State Department; a situation which forced her to obtain a special visa to attend the opening of her 1971 solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Catlett was arrested during a railroad workers’ strike in Mexico City in 1949. Like other artists and activists, she felt the political tensions of the McCarthy years. The TGP was thought to have ties to the Communist Party; and although Catlett never joined the party, her first husband had been a member, so she was closely watched by the United States Embassy.
She continued to teach even after becoming a successful artist, and in 1958 she became the first female Professor of Sculpture and Head of the Sculpture Department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s School of Fine Arts in Mexico City. She retired to Cuernavaca, in 1975. Thereafter, she continued to be active in the Cuernavaca art community.In 1980, Catlett donated a collection of her personal papers, exhibition catalogs, and other documentary materials to the Archives of American Art in the Smithsonian Institution.
Catlett was a sculptor and printmaker who was widely regarded as one of the most important African American artists of the 20th century; whose long career stretched from pioneering in academia, blending art with political/social movements like the Chicago Renaissance of the 1940s, the Black Power and Black Arts movements, the Mexican Public Art Movement, Feminism and confronting injustices against African-Americans. Catlett often drew upon her personal experiences as an African-American woman in a period of unbridled racism but she also embraced influences such as pre-Columbian sculpture, and the works of artists Henry Moore and Diego Rivera.
She was concerned with the social dimension of her art. “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.” For example, her Sharecropper print refers to the injustices of an unfair system exerted on the poor and showed her lifelong concern for the oppressed and the dignity of women. She was a ground-breaking personality and her tenacity to seek a career when segregation presented limited opportunities drove her to make art and speak the truth of her own experiences. She was as much beloved in Mexico as the US, and worked up until her death at age 96.
Awards and Honors:
50 year retrospective exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, 1998
Elizabeth Catlett Week in Berkeley, CA
Elizabeth Catlett Day in Cleveland, OH
Honorary citizen of New Orleans, LA
Honorary Doctorate from Pace University, NY
2003 International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award
Included in Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” , 1976 “Stargazers:Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation w/ 21 Contemporary Artists,” Bronx Museum, NY
First prize in sculpture, the American Negro Exposition in Chicago, 1939
The National Council of Negro Women in New York
Louis Armstrong, Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans, LA
Howard University, Washington, D.C.
“Invisible Man” Memorial to Ralph Ellison, in Riverside Park, West Harlem, NY
And several in Mexico and Mississippi
Institute of Fine Arts, Mexico
The Museum of Modern Art, NY
Museum of Modern Art, Mexico
National Museum of Prague
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C
Worcester Art Museum, MA
The University of Iowa, IA
Howard University, Washington, DC
Fisk University, NY
Atlanta University, GA
the Barnett-Aden Collection, FL
Schomburg Collection, NY
Museum of New Orleans, LA
The High Museum, GA
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY