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Elizabeth Catlett

(b. 1915)


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(1919– ).

Sculptor and printmaker. Committed to a social purpose for art, she focuses particularly on the lives of African-American and other minority women. She has lived in Mexico for six decades, but continues to visit New York regularly. A native of Washington, D.C., she was educated there at Howard University, graduating in 1936 with a major in painting. Her teachers included Lois Mailou Jones, James Lesesne Wells, and, most importantly, James Porter. In 1940 she received an MFA in sculpture from the State University of Iowa (now University of Iowa) in Iowa City, where she studied with Grant Wood. While subsequently studying ceramics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she married Charles White. (The partnership lasted only a few years.) After they moved to New York, she worked privately with Russian-born, School of Paris sculptor Ossip Zadkine. During the early 1940s, teaching in Harlem increased her sensitivity to the deleterious effects of racial discrimination and to art's potential for ameliorating the lives of disadvantaged peoples. In Mexico, contact with that country's well-known mural painters further stimulated her populist sympathies. She studied with Mexican sculptor Francisco Zuñiga and began making prints at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, where she met Mexican painter and printmaker Francisco Mora. They married in 1947. In 1959 she began teaching at Mexico City's National School of Fine Arts of the National Autonomous University, where she eventually headed the sculpture department. In recent years, she has continued to work in Cuernavaca. Catlett's sculpture in numerous media varies from direct realism to near abstraction but shows consistent attention to surface finish and to humanitarian concerns for social justice. Her bronze half-length of eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley (Jackson [Mississippi] State University, 1973) convincingly evokes an African American whose life story inspires achievement in the arts. On the other hand, in its smoothly abstracted shapes, the black marble Singing Head (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1980; also other versions) displays Catlett's interests in pure form and in the sculptural styles of her African heritage. In her prints, Catlett has characteristically employed vigorously stylized, flattened, high-contrast images, as in the linocut Sharecropper (1952). This bust-length, aging woman in a straw hat radiates dignity, fortitude, and inner strength.

Subjects: Art — United States History.


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