Elizabeth Catlett: A Legacy For Iowa
Elizabeth Catlett: A Legacy For Iowa
By Nico Alvarado-Greenwood
[From the UIMA Magazine, Spring 2007]
To describe the sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett as “one of the most celebrated African American artists alive” would not be an exaggeration: she is the recipient of accolades so grand they are usually reserved for royalty. The city of Berkeley, California, has proclaimed an Elizabeth Catlett Week; Cleveland, for its part, has an Elizabeth Catlett Day. New Orleans has made her an honorary citizen, and it would be tedious to list the many institutions that have granted her honorary degrees. Oprah Winfrey (who owns four Catletts) named the artist to her roster of twenty-five “Legends,” alongside such figures as Toni Morrison and Coretta Scott King, and the International Sculpture Center awarded her its Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award. To say nothing of the work itself, which graces museums and public spaces around the world.
At the age of ninety-one, Catlett is indeed one of the most celebrated African American artists alive—and yet she has lived in Mexico for the past sixty years. In August of this year, UIMA Curator Kathleen Edwards traveled to Cuernavaca to meet her.
Cuernavaca’s commercial district is at the bottom of a valley; its residential areas climb the slopes. Catlett and her now-deceased husband, the artist Francisco Mora’s home and studios sit behind a whitewashed wall and an iron gate. Catlett and Mora each worked on the property (Catlett remains very active in her studio), which abounds with tropical gardens and fruit trees. Edwards found the artist inside, comfortably dressed and looking younger than her years, and the two began a days-long conversation against the backdrop of Catlett’s large and vigorous body of work.
Elizabeth Catlett found her subject early in her career. While in graduate school at the University of Iowa she studied with famed regionalist Grant Wood; the encounter left an indelible mark. Having absorbed the lessons of modernism and abstraction, Catlett “experienced an aesthetic awakening,” Edwards says, “when Grant Wood encouraged her to base her work on what she knew best. As Catlett has conveyed, what she knows is black people, particularly black women—the nuances of their bodies and their stories.” Catlett was among the first recipients of an M.F.A. in visual arts from Iowa in 1940.
In 1946, Catlett went to Mexico City on a fellowship. Mexican artists at the time were developing a new sense of national identity, exemplified in the sweeping public murals of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Davis Alfaro Siquieros. Their art was politically engaged, formally radical, and deeply populist. In such a charged atmosphere, Catlett’s work grew to encompass both the struggles of African Americans in her home country and those of the large underclass in the country she would soon adopt. She became an active member of the Taller de Gráfica Popular—the Workshop for Popular Graphic Art, or TGP. It was a vocation and an education. “Mexico and the TGP have a long history of printmaking in the service of social change,” Edwards says. The collective was “committed to giving a voice to ideas serving the underserved. It championed the rights of ordinary people.”
By the time the United States government declared the TGP a “Communist Front Organization” and banned its members from entering the country, Catlett had already made a life for herself in Mexico. She and Mora had married and had three children (all boys, all of whom are now involved in the arts). Her prints had begun to address the lives of Mexicans as well as African Americans, and she and her colleagues at the TGP were thinking even further. Melanie Herzog, in her book Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico, quotes Catlett as saying “We were concerned not only with problems in Mexico; the problems of whatever oppressed people, colonial or semicolonial, were of concern to us.” Edwards says: “I think that Elizabeth’s primary position is to speak for the outsider from the outside.”
In 1962 Catlett became a Mexican citizen, because, as she said, “I’m a social and political person, so I wanted to be a citizen.... I made a life in Mexico.” (She regained her U.S. citizenship in 2002.)
The fruits of those years are many. For the University of Iowa Museum of Art, they include twenty-seven prints that Edwards selected for the Museum from Catlett’s collection of her own work; among them are the last impressions of several of her prints. The prints will join two other major pieces in the University’s collection of Catlett’s work: a famous linocut print called Sharecropper, acquired by the Museum several years ago and a statue, Stepping Out, which will be in the entry lobby of the renovated Iowa Memorial Union. The recent acquisition is supported by the Edwin B. Green Acquisition Endowment. As a result of previous discussions with the UI Foundation and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ms. Catlett will in turn donate the entire purchase price of the prints to the University of Iowa Foundation to create a scholarship fund in the School of Art and Art History. The Elizabeth Catlett Mora Scholarship Fund will benefit either undergraduate or graduate printmaking students who are African American or Latino.
After studying her work and after this memorable visit, Edwards says “Catlett’s work is full of love and tenderness and also, in a way, of sorrow for the past and fear for the future.” One of Catlett’s most vocal supporters is Oprah Winfrey, who says of her work that it “represents the indomitability and resilience of our people both in its portrayal of what we’ve survived and in its promise of what greatness lies ahead.”