Elizabeth Catlett was a mix media sculptor whose early works were categorized by realism and reflected her life and times as an African American artist living in and coming from segregated America. Her focus on the plight of women and children is an identifying aspect of her work. Her work has been so influential that her art was included in major surveys like the “Two Centuries of Black American Art” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976. Ms. Catlett began her career as a teacher at Dillard University in New Orleans. Dillard was a historically black college and university like Howard University which she attended for her undergraduate work and where she also graduated cum laude. She attended the University of Iowa to receive her Masters of Fine Arts. It was there that her stone workings took on what would become her signature autobiographical style. Her works displayed the life experiences of black women and children. In 1941-1946 she married and later divorced the artist Charles White.
Leaving New Orleans to study under Russian born artist Ossip Zadkine in New York her sculptures began to move towards a more abstract presentation thanks to his urgings. She traveled to Mexico in 1946 where she worked at the Taller de Grảfico Popular; a workshop for Muralist and graphic artist. Her experience at the museum beckoned her to try to speak to the widest possible audience and she began to balance abstract and figurative art. Ostracized from America and closely watched by the American Embassy in Mexico during the McCarthy era for working at TGP who was suspected of having communist leanings, Ms. Catlett renounced her citizenship and was dubbed an “undesirable alien” by the American State Department. To attend her own one woman show in Harlem she had to obtain a special visa. Ms. Catlett’s art is included in museums around the world most notably the Museum of Modern Art in New York, High Museum in Atlanta, Museum of Modern Art Mexico City, and the National Museum of Prague. Ms. Catlett continued to teach despite her phenomenal success and renown, she became the first female professor of sculpture and headed the department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico School of Fine Arts. Upon inquiry about her ever present motif and motive as an “ARTivist” she is quoted as saying “I have always wanted my art to service people, to reflect us, to relate to us, to simulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”
Mother and Child
wood sculpture (1939)
Elizabeth Catlett’s works include “Mother and Child” (1939) and “Bather” (2009). “Mother and Child” is a wood cut sculpture depicting a mother holding her baby in her arms. The theme of maternal protection and fruition was a common thread in her work. In creating this piece Ms. Catlett desired “to create a composition of two figures, one smaller than the other, so interlaced as to be expressive of maternity.” This piece if reflective of her realist tendencies before her work with and the influence of Zadkine. The mothers wide hips and rounded face seem to suggest nurturing, fertility, and comfort. The child rests with its head buried against her shoulder crying and dismaying about an accident. The mother turns slightly as if whispering reassurances. The piece is striking in that it is a highly relatable moment, seeking shelter and comfort in the arms of a mother or trusted mother figure. The sculpture exudes nostalgia and rouses yearning for a simpler time and place. This nostalgia is invoked by the thought of such a secure and peaceful presence. The child appears naked while the mother seems simply clothed. This dynamic adds to the simplistic and peaceful feel of the sculpture because complexity of attire would seem garish and over wrought in this moment so cemented in the beauty of an everyday-ness unnoticed until the artist sheds light and polish on the rustic feelings of home.
wood sculpture (2009)
“Bather” is another wood cut realist piece by Ms. Catlett. It is the depiction of a young African American woman arms raised over her head in strength and determination. Her eyes are set on some distant goal or object her lips pursed in determination. Her feet are set one forward the other back as if in anticipation or a slow marched to some ensuing battle. Tired and weary the woman rests with her hands on her head determined to finish and to continue despite her fatigue. Completely naked and of rounded hips and frame “Bather” invokes images of symbolic strength against plights faced by intersections of race and femininity.“Bather” is the symbol of the black woman a cemented symbol of strength and guidance to be looked at, referenced to, and called upon to ignite much needed but elusive strength. The young woman depicted in “Bather” ignites sisters in struggle. Much advanced in who she is, what she stands for, and what she wants, residing at all levels of the social sphere, and simultaneously black and woman. “Bather” understands the fight is not yet complete . A call to justice, to arms even but definitely a call to fight and to carry one.