Elizabeth Catlett was born April 15, 1915, in Washington, D.C. She was the youngest of three children born to John and Mary Catlett. Both of Elizabeth’s parents were public school teachers. As a result of her parents’ line of work, the Catletts placed a high value on education.
Catlett attended Dunbar High School in D.C. Upon graduating in 1933, she attended Howard University. There, she studied design and drawing. She eventually changed her major to painting and ultimately graduated magna cum laude in 1935. By 1940, she became the first student to receive an M.F.A. in sculpting from the University of Iowa.
After leaving the University of Iowa, Catlett then enrolled in classes at the Art Institute of Chicago in Illinois. There, she studied ceramics. In 1942 and 1943, she studied lithography at the Arts Students League in New York City. In 1943, she studied sculpting with Ossip Zadkine, a Russian sculptor.
Mother and Child
In terms of her own art, Catlett drew inspiration from Grant Wood and James A. Porter. The former was a Black landscape painter and the latter was a Black art historian. She began sculpting images of Black women. Her thesis project, titled Mother and Child, won a prize at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago, in 1940.
During the 1930s and ’40s, Catlett taught art at Prairie View A&M College in Texas. Later, she taught art at Dillard University, Hampton Institute, and the Carver School in New York City. She taught until 1946 when she moved to Mexico.
In 1946, Catlett won a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to study wood and ceramic sculpting. She attended the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura (the School of Painting and Sculpture) in Esmeralda, Mexico. In 1947, she became a Mexican citizen and married fellow artist, Francisco Victor Mora. There, she worked with the People’s Graphic Arts Workshop which used art to improve the lives of Black and Mexican people.
In 1958, Catlett became the first female professor of sculpture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She held that position until she retired in 1975. In Mexico, her art realized a significant degree of notoriety. Her art would not procure that degree of fame in the U.S. until 1993.
After Catlett’s artwork was displayed at the June Kelly Gallery in New York, her notoriety grew in the U.S. She was featured in a number of solo exhibitions across the country. Her work has even been recognized by the Women’s Caucus for Art and the International Sculpture Center. She also received the 2003 Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award. Elizabeth Catlett died April 2, 2012, in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She was 96 years old.
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