Elizabeth Catlett: A Life in Art and Politics

By Sims, Lowery Stokes | American Visions, April-May 1998 | Go to article overview

Elizabeth Catlett: A Life in Art and Politics


Sims, Lowery Stokes, American Visions


There is an ease with which Elizabeth Catlett captured the posture of mother and child in a moment of peace, alone with each other, in her thesis project for her master's degree from the University of Iowa in 1940. This maternal subject was replete with irony. The situation of the African-American Madonna and child was always fraught with danger, irony and notions of separation and death. The mother's legs open under the sweep of her skirt to accommodate the sturdy form of the child, who nestles against her chest. This suggests that Catlett already had a command of her visual responses to form. To this day, as she has said, Catlett will take the pose she demands of a model to "feel where the stress and tensions are."

Catlett sent "Mother and Child" to Chicago to be exhibited at the 1940 Columbian Exposition, a national exhibition of African-American artists, where it won first prize in sculpture. She was 25 at the time, and she would continue to explore the qualities of simplicity and volume into the early 1940s in her studies of African-American women and workers in painting, sculpture and graphics.

In her work executed between 1942 and 1946, Catlett begins to build a roster of images that focus particularly on the African-American woman worker. These works not only chronicle the physical and psychological toll of their lives, but also forthrightly celebrate the contribution of these individuals to the state of this country, noting the inherent heroism symbolized in each floor washed, each bed made, each indignity endured and overcome.

Catlett's approach to these images was undoubtedly informed by her experience with exploitation and betrayal in the labor market. Just before enrolling at Iowa, she worked as a teacher and supervisor in a high school in Durham, N.C., where she was involved in a struggle to win equitable pay for African-American teachers. Her experiences with teaching also brought the day-to-day struggles of African Americans home to her directly. While head of the art department at Dillard University, she had to fight for her students' right to access public institutions. When she moved to New York in 1942, Catlett continued her commitment to the education and the political and social betterment of black people. She joined the faculty of the Carver School in Harlem, whose student body was made up of laborers and blue-collar workers.

Catlett captured such individuals in a series of generalized portrait studies in oil and graphic media executed between 1942 and 1946. Until recently, these works were a lesser-known aspect of Catlett's work. In both style and attitude, however, they 'a' have a syncretic relationship to Catlett's a sculptural production during the same period. Works such as "War Worker," "Red Cross Woman (Nurse)," "Black Worker" and "Woman" record the contributions of African Americans to the war effort.

The character of Catlett's work by the mid-1940s parallels that of her contemporaries, including Charles White, John Wilson and Romare Bearden. The simplified planes and forms convey a heroic and dignified image of African Americans.

When Catlett to Mexico in 1946 on an extension of a Rosenwald Fellowship awarded in 1945, she noted that she didn't mean to stay in Mexico. She went to find time and space to complete the work she had proposed for the fellowship. Her proposal was to do a series of prints, paintings and Sculptures on the theme of the African-American woman. She had begun work on the print series now known as "I Am a Negro Woman," but her involvement in the politics of the Carver School--then under fire as a Communist front--and the demands of teaching had severely curtailed her work. Her relationship with her first husband, Charles White, was also severely strained, and she felt a change of scenery might help their marriage. Although the marriage ended in divorce, for Catlett the trip to Mexico opened up a new set of possibilities and new life. …

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