Elizabeth Catlett: Dean of Women Artists

By Norment, Lynn | Ebony, April 1993 | Go to article overview

Elizabeth Catlett: Dean of Women Artists


Norment, Lynn, Ebony


WHEN studying or simply enjoying Elizabeth Catlett's art, one is confronted with several powerful impressions: The sculptures are imposing but elegant, the prints stark but striking.

Even art lovers who don't know the artist recognize her work, for Catlett's sculptures have been an integral part of the American art scene since 1941. In that year the young graduate student won first prize for sculpture at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago with her Mother and Child marble creation. Since that auspicious start, Elizabeth Catlett has proven herself a prolific, dedicated and driven artist and, consequently, has carved a niche for herself as a premiere female African-American sculptor and print maker.

Whether she works with cedar, mahogany, eucalyptus, marble, limestone, onyx, bronze or Mexican stone, the resulting figures, large or small, are consistently dramatic, graceful and "weighty," as art historian James Grimes called her work. And though her creations are prized by collectors and museums, Catlett is dedicated to public art. Among her works on public display is a 10-foot bronze sculpture of Louis Armstrong in New Orleans. She feels strongly that art should be more accessible to students and minorities. "I want public art to have meaning for Black people," she says, "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."

Catlett's recurring mother-and-child theme has become a trademark for the mother of three sons (an artist, a jazz musician and a film maker) and grandmother of eight. From her home/studio in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Catlett 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 adds.

Catlett's striking solo female images, in print and sculpture, also have become renowned. Notable among them are the 1980s prints Virginia, Cartas and Celie, which was commissioned for the movie, The Color Purple. And then there are the magnificent sculptures: the regal cedar Black Flag (1970), bronze Seated Figure (1979), curvaceous orange marble Torso (1974), emphatic walnut Pregnancy (1970), mahogany Seated Woman (1962), and militant cedar Homage to My Young Black Sisters (1968).

"I have nothing against men but, since am a woman, I know more about women and I know how they feel," she says in artist/author Samella Lewis' book about her life and work. "I think there is a need to express something about the working class Black woman and that's what I do . …

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