Elizabeth Catlett

“Sharecropper” by Elizabeth Catlett (c. 1952)

An older woman looks up and out to the right. A wide brimmed sun hat shades her face and covers her white hair. Her clothes are very modest. In fact, her jacket is closed with a safety pin. There is a look in her face that could be curiosity. It could be hopefulness. There is almost a smile looming behind the look that doesn’t quite reach her lips.

This is Elizabeth Catlett’s 1952 linoleum cut work titled Sharecropper, that addressed the oppressive post-slavery system that once entrapped countless Black farmworkers in the South.

Elizabeth Catlett was born on April 15th, 1915 in Washington DC, at Freedmen’s Hospital (now known as Howard University Hospital). She was the youngest of three children of John and Mary Carson Catlett. Both her maternal and paternal grandparents were born into slavery. Her father, before he passed away, taught math at Tuskegee Institute and in Washington, D.C., but he died shortly after her birth. As a child, sometimes Catlett was left with a family friend while her mother worked several jobs to support her children. Catlett once said, “I remember drawing and painting while at this lady’s house… as a very happy part of my childhood.”

She was at Dunbar High school, when she decided to become an artist and was accepted and won a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. This was a really big deal, but after learning she was Black, CIT rescinded her acceptance. She would recall the devastation this caused, for the rest of her life. Mary, her mother encouraged her to attend Howard University and she did – in 1932. It was here, that she initially majored in design under Lois Mailou Jones, with the intent of becoming a textile designer. Her art history professor, James B. Herring once loaned her a book on African sculpture, which completely impressed her. If you recall, we spoke of James Herring several times in this podcast, particularly in the episodes on David Driskell and Alma Thomas. Catlett’s painting teacher, James A. Porter (also mentioned previously), introduced her to the work and concepts of Mexican muralists. She was so moved by this that she changed her major from textile design to painting.

Her painting teacher, James A. Porter, arranged for Catlett to get a job on the pre-WPA mural project, but unfortunately, it didn’t last. She was fired for goofing off. She said, “I was silly – I didn’t do the work I was supposed to do. The money went to my head.” Despite this, though, she graduated with honors; from Howard in 1935.

On graduating, Catlett obtained a job teaching art at a Black high school in Durham, North Carolina, while supervising art education in eight elementary schools. For all this, she was paid $57.50 a month. She was in the segregated south, but it wasn’t segregation that caught her off guard, but the insatiable, materialistic attitudes of some Black people in the community; the lack of empathy to the needs of emotionally disturbed children, and other Black educators’ who tried to quash teachers demands for better pay. She was even kicked out and forcibly removed from a teachers’ meeting where she raised these issues. This experience made her re-examine social and economic relationships and even though her salary rose to $79 a month, she split.

In 1939, Catlett began her graduate studies at the University of Iowa, partly because there was no tuition increase for non-resident students and partly because, at that time, the influential artist Grant Wood, headed the art department there. His critical attitude towards American self-righteous arrogance, expressed in his satirical and extensively reproduced paintings, “American Gothic” and “Daughters of Revolution,” impressed Catlett. Okay, let’s be honest here, “American Gothic” by Grant Wood impresses everybody. That’s why the work is so wildly famous. You might not know it by its name but, think of the husband with the eye glasses holding a pitchfork and the wife looking scornfully at him. Yes. That painting.

She felt Wood was demanding, but fair. He believed a master’s candidate needed to demonstrate proficiency in all major art media. So, when exploring modeling and carving, Catlett found a pleasure in the tactile awareness of the material. She said, “I like to feel something in my hands and to feel I am shaping or molding or changing something.” she explained, recalling how much she had enjoyed sewing, knitting, and crocheting. She still painted but she gravitated more towards wood and stone and was the first woman to receive an MFA in sculpture from the university.

She said later, “You might say that the United States racism formed my artistic perspective and molded my life attitude from a very early age. Grant Wood, one of the first White people that I had contact with, emphasize that we should paint what we knew most intimately… and my people have always been just that- what I know most intimately.” Catlett’s thesis was a distinctive stone statue of a Black mother and child, which took months to carve. Grant Wood loved it.

This same sculpture that delighted the hard-to-please Grant Wood, won first prize in sculpture at the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago. At this exposition she met many young Black artists, which also included Charles White, who she ended up marrying. Shortly after this exposition, she was appointed as head of the art department at Dillard University, in New Orleans, where White also taught. However, the administration wasn’t taking her seriously in her quest to develop a complete art program – so she resigned.

She and Charles White moved to New York, where White studied printmaking at the Art Students League under Harry Sternberg, a New York painter, muralist, lithographer and educator. Sternberg, however, recommended that Catlett study with Ossip Zadkine – a Russian-born sculptor known for his dramatic Cubist-inspired sculptures.

Zadkine was almost destitute – a refugee from World War II – even though he was considered a master sculptor. Catlett said, “He was working in a heatless studio, and I think I was his first student.” She was struggling herself and couldn’t manage to pay the $50 a month fee for more than 2 months – but he let her stay on in exchange for taking care of his cats on the weekends and when he was away.

She said, “I was most attracted to Zadkine because of the great vitality I saw in his work and him.  He was such a vital person when he was working and talking. I was enormously impressed with his great creativity… We used to argue a lot about my doing Black people.” Zadkine felt art should begin from a humanistic international viewpoint. “I felt the contrary – that it should begin as a nationalistic experience and be projected towards international understanding, as our blues and spirituals do. They are our experience, but they are understood and felt everywhere.”

Catlett and White were cut from the same cloth when it came to combatting prejudice and developing their individual artistic voices. During this period White’s health was not great, but he was commissioned to create a mural depicting historic African-American leaders at Hampton Institute in Virginia. You might recall this from the episode about John Thomas Biggers. Because of this, Catlett and White were given teaching assignments at Hampton by Victor Lowenfeld, an innovative Austrian psychologist and artists who headed the University’s first art department.

The couple, were accomplished artists and were examples to the students of what a Black artist could achieve despite the country’s oppression. Catlett and White had many evenings of philosophical conversations with Lowenfeld, who believed strongly in using creativity and self-expression to build self-esteem. He emboldened Black artists to embrace their heritage in their artistic work. White’s mural embodied Lowenfeld’s artistic philosophy, portraying historic African American leaders.

Catlett and White return to New York. But White was drafted into the army. He was discharged after he contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized, until after World War II. Meanwhile, as White was convalescing, Catlett turned into one of the most dynamic teachers at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem. Though she was criticized by the infamous House on American Activities Committee that labeled her as a subversive, George Washington Carver School was supported by many powerful Harlem leaders, like the poet and painter Gwendolyn Bennett a former president of the Harlem artist Guild and director of the Harlem Community Arts center; Norman Lewis and Ernest Critchlow who were also art teachers. This was the era of McCarthyism, where communist vilification became a Salem-esque witch hunt which destroyed the careers of so many because of false or exaggerated claims.

Catlett was passionate about inspiring her people artistically and raised money out in the streets to do her part to support the school. She was more than a teacher.  Her deep involvement galvanized her and brought her into contact with different kinds of people, some, she hadn’t been interacted with before. She said, “I came from a middle-class family, even though my mother had to work hard. But the school brought me into contact with working people. For the first time I began to get an understanding of the great hunger for art and culture of ordinary Black people.”

After World War II, the vibe of the community changed. The solidarity of the people in Harlem, was gone. The Harlem Community Arts Center and the Harlem Artist Guild, had evaporated. Sculptor, Augusta Savage, upon returning from a leave of absence found that her position had been assumed by someone else. After multiple attempts and failures with creating other independent venues for lack of funding, she left depressed, hurt and angry and sought refuge in an isolated Upstate Farm. All the while, accusations from the House Committee on Un-American Activities were smearing names and obliterating careers. The Congressional attacks weren’t limited to the political left. Anything modern or Progressive in art came under attack. Congressman George A. Dondero was targeting abstract art as well as, art with social content. The George Washington Carver School wasn’t able to survive in this atmosphere.

In 1946, Catlett won a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship, enabling her to study in Mexico, where she dove deeper into the ideals of muralists. She said, “Coming directly from Harlem … strengthened my belief in an art for people, all kinds of people, and the necessity for them being able to participate aesthetically in our production as artists.” Catlett studied with Francisco Zuniga, a Costa Rican born Mexican sculptor. She learned ancient techniques of ceramic sculpturing from pre-Spanish eras. She also studied wood carving with Jose Elarese and Jose L. Ruiz and then started making lithographic prints in the Taller de Grafica Popular.

She came to know almost all of Mexico’s big shot artists – including David Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, Pablo O. Higgins, Leopold Mendez, Alfredo Zalce, Rufino Tamayo, and Francisco Mora, who became husband #2 after her divorce from Charles White, from whom she had long been separated.

Mora’s influence changed some of her cultural ideas. She said, “It ended my great interest in material things – and having things, and in keeping up with what other people have. When I lived in New York I had to have a coat every two years, and all kinds of things like that. My husband came from a very poor family, and I have since witnessed what is really basic in life: a place to live and food and doing the work you want to do – doing a job that means something to you instead of a job to make money.”

Catlett said,”I have also learned from Francisco what it means to be a really creative person. Working in the Taller de Grafica. I learned that art is not something that people learn to do individually, that who does it is not important, but it’s use and it’s effects on people are what is most important.” This concept is a departure from traditional Western ideas that emphasized the individual artist. She said, “We worked collectively. I still ask people’s opinion while I am working: what they think of what I am doing. And if it is clear to them. We work collectively, although we criticize each other’s work from a positive point of view, trying to help, trying to see what would better the work.”

“We also work together. I remember a poster that Leopold and Pablo drew. They gave me the drawing and I developed the design for a silkscreen, but being very pregnant I couldn’t do the screening myself, so someone else did that. The thinking of many people on one subject, or a piece of art or creating, can also work very well.”

When her children were very young, Catlett continued making prints but did very little sculpting. And please don’t think that McCarthyism which terrorized the U.S. didn’t leak its accusations into Mexico. Even in Mexico, Catlett was harassed because of her past associations and because her husband, Francisco Mora, worked on behalf of Mexican railroad workers unions. Eventually, Catlett did escape the harassment after she became a Mexican citizen.

In 1956, she won second prize in sculpture in the Atlanta University annual exhibition and earned a diploma in printmaking at the First National Painting and Printmaking Exhibition in Mexico City. In 1959, she also won an award at the International Graphics exhibition in Leipzig, Germany.

In 1958, she became the first woman Professor to head the sculpture department at the national School of Fine Arts, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Initially, this disturbed some of the male faculty members, who avoided speaking to her. However, she wasn’t bothered by it; she had one major prizes and her work as a printmaker was being exhibited all over the world. Besides, Mexico’s leading artists at the Taller de Grafica worked with her and she had earned their respect. She knew her worth. And as faculty members began to see her effectiveness as a teacher, her warmth and love of people, they came around.

In 1961, in the speech she gave in Mexico City, she rejected the notion that Black exhibitions meant accepting segregated exhibitions. She stated that, “There was a difference between sitting in the back seat because you have to and because you want to.”

It was a speech for the times and it highlighted a significant mind shift for many Black creators and thinkers. As a result, formations of Black artist groups, such as, Spiral, in New York, increased across the country. You might recall that we briefly discussed, Spiral, in the episode on Emma Amos. They weren’t waiting for galleries and museums anymore. These exhibitions were both the protest and resource for Black artists in response to the exclusion from museums, educational and governmental exhibitions that continued to dominate with racial prejudice against Black Americans in particular.

In 1962, Catlett won the Tlatilco prize in the first Sculpture Biennial in Mexico. Two years later, in 1964, she won the Xipe Totec prize. She’s a legend in Mexico.

Catlett being out of the U.S., put her in a place of reflection on the obstacles of African-American artists in the United States from a different angle. She looked at her own experiences and her acceptance in Mexico and Europe. She could relate to their frustration and knew firsthand of their disappointments in trying to cope with oppression, but after learning of the Civil Rights Movement by students in the south, she disagreed with the attitudes of many Black artists. She felt some of their ideas contained faulty logic.

In a 1961 speech, given at the National Conference of Artists, a newly organized group of art teachers in southern Black colleges, she declared that their identity as African Americans and their relationship to their people were critical in their development as artists and in gaining recognition. This speech made folks think, and inspired Black artists to form groups to talk about their particular challenges in the U.S. Some of her philosophies mirrored those expressed by W E B DuBois in 1926, but some were more radical in step with the Civil Rights Movement, that paralleled struggles of colonized people of Africa and Asia, fighting to achieve independence. Black artists were continuously seemingly systematically, overlooked by U.S. galleries and museums.

She made this speech at a time when Abstract Expressionism, was big and artists and art professionals were proud of its complete absence of content. It dominated the American art scene. This popular movement led Catlett to point out that while Black artists in the South lacked a nurturing art environment, Northern Black artists were in danger of completely losing their identities “in the mass of American artist who must say nothing socially or even realistically.” She sarcastically addressed the Black artists working in their non-objective style, saying “they are accepted; they are no longer Negro; they are American; they are now equal.”

She rejected the old goal of gaining acceptance in the industry and urged all Black exhibition to be based on a proud identification with Black people, not segregation because she said, “we are through with segregation.”

Catlett’s prints have been exhibited worldwide, as they were easier to transport than her sculptures. In 1970, she won a fellowship for study and travel in East Germany and the following year the British Council provided a grant for her to visit art schools in England. In 1978, Catlett went to China and the Soviet Union with a group of non-artists. In China she, discussed the work of Black artists in America, and answered inqueries about pop art, op art, and Abstract expressionism.

Her work is in so many museums, including the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Museum of American Art in Washington DC, High School Museum in Atlanta and National Museum of Czechoslovakia in Prague. Her work is also in the collections of Atlanta, Fisk and Howard Universities as well as the State University of Iowa.

In 1975, Catlett moved to Cuernavaca, after retiring from her teaching position at the Escuela Nacional de Antes Plasticas.  Then, eight years later, in 1983, her and Mora purchased an apartment in Battery Park City, New York – a primarily residential area in Manhattan. But Mora died in 2002 and Catlett regained her American citizenship that same year. At the age of 96, Catlett transitioned peacefully in her sleep at her home in Cuernavaca on April 2, 2012.

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