R.I.P. Elizabeth Catlett

The Johnson Publishing family extends its condolences to the family of renowned sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett, 96, who died on April 2 at her home in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. Catlett, whose work showcased the beauty and power of Black women, was featured in the October 2010 issue of EBONY in the “Legend” section. Survivors include three children: Francisco, Juan and David Mora Catlett.

Like Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist in the 1952 classic Invisible Man, Elizabeth Catlett knows what it’s like to be socially invisible. “Being a woman and being Black” often reinforced alienation for the eminent sculptor and printmaker, she says.

Instead of being troubled by this, Catlett, who turned 95 this year, chose to let her work speak for her. For more than seven decades, her art has demonstrated the beauty and power of women of color.

“I mainly do Black women as sculpture or printmaking because they are completely ignored in art,” says Catlett. “Working women—I think somebody should represent them.”

With such well-known prints as Sharecropper and Malcolm X Speaks for Us, Catlett says she didn’t start sculpting until her second year in high school. A teacher had her make something from a bar of soap. Now she coaxes her signature contoured figures from wood, bronze, onyx, marble, pottery clay, terra-cotta and stone.

Ironically, Catlett joined forces with the Invisible Man in 2003 after being commissioned to do a monumental memorial in Riverside Park, N.Y. The 15-foot-high bronze monolith  faces the home of Ellison in New York’s West Harlem.

“My son David and I just made a 13-foot sculpture of Mahalia Jackson for the New Orleans Park,” says Catlett, who is an honorary citizen of The Big Easy.

The statue of gospel great Jackson was installed in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood, not far from Catlett’s 1975 figure of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

In addition to being part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C, and the National Museum of Art in Mexico City, Catlett’s work is owned by private collectors such as Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey.

Once briefly married to social realist artist Charles White, Catlett later married Mexican artist Francisco Mora in 1947. Mexico has been her home since the 1940s. The mother of three is a Mexican citizen, though she also has a residence in New York.

She made history in 1958 when she became the first Black female professor of sculpture at the University of Mexico. A year later, the industrious artist became head of the sculpture department. Her list of accolades consists of 13 honorary doctorates, including ones from Howard, Tulane and Syracuse Universities, Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design.

A full-circle moment came in 2008 when Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) presented the pioneering artist with an honorary doctorate of fine arts to rectify a wrong exacted on her in 1932. As a budding 16-year-old artist, the Washington, D.C. native received a scholarship to CMU, but when university officials saw that she was “colored,” they denied her admittance.

Catlett then chose Howard University’s School of Art, where she graduated cum laude in 1935. Five years later, she became the first Black to obtain a master’s of fine art in sculpture from the University of Iowa.

After her many years of labor, does Catlett find her work complicated? “It’s difficult to do, but the idea is not. When I finish something, I rest,” she says.

The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., mounted an exhibit in June, The Sculpture of Elizabeth Catlett: A Collector’s Passion.

The intimate show will be on display until January 2011.