Elizabeth Catlett: Legendary Artist Is Still Creating and Living Life on Her Own Terms

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AT age 90, Elizabeth Catlett is nowhere near retiring. She is still mentally sharp, pleasantly feisty and passionate about creating her signature art. The years and trials and travels and successes have not jaded her heart, inflated her ego or dampened her creative spirit.

A feminist long before the word was popular, and an activist long before it was the thing to do, she dared to speak her mind and follow her heart. That led her to pursue life as an artist despite few female role models and the fact that museums in the segregated South were closed to Blacks. Adventurous and forward-thinking, she traveled to Mexico in the late '40s, and her artistic expressions against racial and social injustices led to her being barred from the U.S. for a decade.

For 60 years, she has created powerful prints and sculptures, many of them glorifying the Black (and sometimes Mexican) woman and depicting the African-American experience. Her work and vision have established her among the top ranks of American artists, and among the most beloved African-American artists.

"I think people should create art because they want to create, and what they want to create," the artist says while sipping lemon tea in a hotel suite in Chicago. "I don't think they should create to make money. I don't think people should create to be important, to be famous. People who are famous don't start out trying to be famous."

Fame and acclaim may not have been her inspiration, but they are a by-product of her life. She has received numerous awards honoring her life and work, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center. In Chicago, Catlett was presented the inaugural Art Institute of Chicago Legends and Legacy Award, which "recognizes artists of African American heritage who have made significant and long-standing contributions to the arts."

During this celebration, the prestigious Art Institute unveiled several Catlett prints it recently acquired, and exhibited works from private collections. On display was the Art Institute's stunning iconic print Sharecropper, which the artist created in the early '50s. Also shown was Survivor (1983), another linocut of a strong Black woman laborer. "I printed that on my own press in Mexico," she reveals. Many of her famous and compelling works depict the lives of everyday people of African-American and Mexican decent, including many leaders of the African-American and Latin American liberation movements.

She's also known for her imposing yet elegant sculptures that showcase the female form, sometimes with a child. She says she likes the "challenge" presented by the "technical problem, the relationship between the two figures. And it's an emotional thing for me, because I am a mother." She works with cedar, mahogany, eucalyptus, marble, limestone, onyx, bronze and Mexican stone, and the resulting figures are consistently dramatic and graceful.

Her pieces are prized by collectors and museums, yet the artist has always been committed to public art. At 150th Street and Riverside Drive in New York City stands her tribute to writer Ralph Ellison. "It's a big rectangle with a hole in the middle--the [invisible] man walking," she says. "I want public art to have meaning for Black people, so that they will have some art they can identify with, so they will be encouraged to explore what the museums and galleries have to offer."

The daughter of educators, Catlett showed an interest in art while growing up in Washington, D.C. At Howard University, she was introduced to the linocut process and studied with artists such as James Wells, James Herring, Lois Mailou Jones and James Porter. After graduating in 1935, she taught in public schools in Durham, N.C., her mother's home state, and participated, along with a young Thurgood Marshall, in an unsuccessful effort to gain equal pay for Black teachers. She then studied painting with artist Grant Wood at the University of Iowa, but sculpture became her focus. …