Elizabeth Catlett may have worked in rough, hard mediums like wood and stone, but each of her pieces expressed a smooth quality that evoked softness. She made sculpting look easy.
Born in 1915 in Washington, she grew up in a time filled with hardships for the African-American culture; she witnessed history make great changes–as well as mistakes–and used it all as inspiration for her sculptures and woodwork. Her pieces were rooted in maternal images and depictions of black women as strong figures, such as “Bather“, which is currently for sale.
After she won a scholarship to Carnegie Institute of Technology and was refused admittance because she was black, Catlett entered Howard University with the help of her mother, who had saved enough money to pay for her first semester’s tuition. She eventually won a second scholarship for the rest and went on to graduate cum laude before going on to teach high school in North Carolina. She later earned her M.F.A. at the University of Iowa, where she began to focus her creativity on stone carvings.
A strong woman who refused to be considered a lesser citizen just for the color of her skin, Catlett once organized a field trip to the Delgado Museum of Art while teaching at New Orleans’ Dillard University. Her wish was for her students to experience a Picasso exhibition. The fact that the museum was closed to the black community didn’t deter her; she simply took her students on a day when the museum was closed to the public.
In 1958, she became the first female professor of sculpture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s School of Fine Arts in Mexico City. She retired 17 years later as a respected, well-traveled teacher and artist. Her work is in museums and galleries all around the country. She passed away on Monday in her sleep at the age of 96 in Mexico City, where she had lived for the past 30 years.
“I have always wanted my art to service my people,” Catlett once said. “To reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”