About the Artist
Early Life and Childhood
Elizabeth Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. in 1915, the youngest of three children. Her parents were the children of freed slaves. Her mother worked as a truant officer for the D.C. public school system. Her father, who died before she was born, taught math at Tuskegee University and made wood carvings in his spare time. One of his woodcarvings, of a bird, fascinated Catlett, and she aspired to be an artist as early as age six.
Education and Personal Life
Catlett won a scholarship to Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon), but was rejected when the admissions department learned that she was black. Instead, she completed her undergraduate studies at Howard University. In 2008, after hearing her story, Carnegie Mellon gave her an honorary Doctorate and a one-woman show.
After graduating in 1937 with honors from Howard, Catlett taught art at Hillside High School in Durham, N.C., her mother’s hometown. She was interested in the works of Grant Wood, and she applied for admission at the University of Iowa, where he was teaching.
She was accepted to the school, but was not allowed to live in the dormitories with white students, so she rented a room off campus. Wood became a mentor to Catlett, advising her to draw what she knew best. She also studied sculpture with noted sculptor Harry Edward Stinson. Catlett graduated in 1940, only one of three students to earn the first Masters in Fine Arts from the university, and the first African-American woman to receive the degree. In 2017, the school opened the Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall.
In 1941 Catlett moved to New Orleans, where she became chair of the art department at Dillard University, an historically black school. She spent summers in Chicago, where she studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago and lithography at the South Side Community Art Center. Catlett met her first husband, artist Charles Wilbur White, in Chicago. In 1942 the couple moved to New York where Catlett taught adult education classes at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem, studied lithography at the Art Students League of New York, and received private instruction from Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine. It was in New York that she met such great intellectuals and artists as W. E. B. Dubois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, and Paul Robeson.
Catlett received a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship in 1946, to study in Mexico. The couple divorced shortly after their arrival.
The following year, Catlett studied printmaking and taught at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a workshop dedicated to prints promoting leftist social causes and education. It was there that she met such great artists as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and printmaker and muralist Francisco Mora.
Catlett and Mora were married in 1947, and remained together until his death in 2002. The couple had three sons, all of whom became involved in art and music.
Catlett worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular from 1946 until 1966, and became a political activist, which led to her being labeled an “undesirable alien” and was barred from entering the U.S. In 1962, she renounced her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen.
Most of Catlett’s career was spent teaching art. It was during the 1960s and 1970s that her work began to be exhibited, mainly in the U.S.
Catlett received numerous awards and recognition during her lifetime, including First Prize at the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago, induction into the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana in 1956, the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Iowa in 1996, a 1998 50-year traveling retrospective of her work sponsored by the Newberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, a NAACP Image Award in 2009, and a joint tribute after her death held by the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana and the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in 2013. She received honorary doctorates from Pace University and Carnegie Mellon, and the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award in contemporary sculpture. The Taller de Gráfica Popular won an international peace prize in part because of her achievements and a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1991.
Elizabeth Catlett’s art is in the permanent collections of museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the High Museum in Atlanta, the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, and the National Museum of Prague.
Elizabeth Catlett died at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 2012, at age 96. She was survived by three sons, ten grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Karen Rosenberg. Elizabeth Catlett, Sculptor With Eye on Social Issues, Is Dead at 96. The New York Times. April 3, 2012.
Ashley Harris. Five Fast Facts: Elizabeth Catlett. National Museum of Women in the Arts. August 18, 2020.