Alice Elizabeth Catlett
April 15, 1915 – April 2, 2012
Alice Elizabeth Catlett was born at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. She was the youngest of Mary and John Catlett’s three children. Catlett’s father was a local public school teacher and a professor of mathematics at Tuskegee Institute. Her mother also worked within the local school system.
All four of Catlett’s grandparents had been enslaved. Yet, the family was middle class by the time of Catlett’s birth. Unfortunately, her father died before Catlett was born. Her mother then worked three jobs to support the family.
Catlett began dreaming of being an artist as a child. During her youth, Catlett attended Lucretia Mott Elementary School and the highly esteemed Dunbar High School. In high school she carved an elephant from soap, creating her first sculpture.
For college, Catlett applied to and was awarded a scholarship to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. The scholarship and her admission were rescinded when the school realized that Catlett was Black. As an alternative, Catlett enrolled at Howard University. Her mother was able to gather the funds to pay one semester of tuition and Catlett earned scholarships to cover her remaining tuition and expenses.
Catlett graduated with a major in painting having studied under several notable art professors. She next spent two years in North Carolina teaching art in public schools. Catlett then continued her education at the University of Iowa.
The landscape painter Grant Wood was a teacher at the school and Catlett enrolled at least in part to study under his tutelage. Wood encouraged his students to focus on subjects with which they were familiar. Catlett heeding this advice began to focus more on depicting Black people, Black women and children in particular, in her art.
In addition to being the period during which Catlett decided on her overall artistic focus, grad school also marked her return to sculpture. Her 1939 thesis work, Mother and Child, was carved from limestone. It was awarded first prize in sculpture at the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago. That same year, Catlett became the first Black woman to receive an MFA from the university.
Catlett accepted a teaching position at the New Orleans HBCU, Dillard University. The Delgado Museum of Art (now known as the New Orleans Museum of Art) observed the practices of Jim Crow. As with many other institutions of the time, the museum and the park within which it was located were segregated. Catlett hoped to have her students observe a Picasso exhibition that was on display. She bypassed the laws by procuring a bus and arranging for it to deliver her and the students to the museum on a day it was closed to the public.
When the school year ended Catlett traveled to Chicago where she stayed with her friend Margaret Burroughs who was also an artist. Catlett immersed herself in the local political art scene and took ceramics and lithography classes. While in Chicago she met another artist, Charles White, and the couple married in December 1941.
They returned to New Orleans where Catlett resumed working at Dillard. But they moved to New York in 1942 as a result of salary issues at Dillard. Catlett continued her education by taking classes and studying with other artists. She taught traditional students at other HBCUs as well as working-class Black adults at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem. These experiences would influence the style and subject of her work.
In 1946, Catlett was awarded a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship. She used the award to travel to Mexico with White where she studied wood carving, ceramic sculpture, and linoleum cut. Catlett continued the practice of focusing her work on the things she knew. In Mexico, she began to incorporate depictions of Mexican workers and the lives of everyday people. Catlett completed a major collection of work which then toured the American South visiting Black Women’s Colleges.
Unfortunately, her marriage was negatively affected by these events. Previously, White had been the more noted and established artist in the couple. But the marriage began to flounder as Catlett achieved increasing success. Catlett temporarily returned to America to obtain a divorce.
Her return to Mexico in 1947 would be permanent. While continuing her studies at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), she met another artist, Francisco Mora. The couple got married and their 50+ year union produced three sons.
Catlett began teaching at the National School of Fine Arts in Mexico City in 1958. This was significant as it marked Catlett as the school’s first female professor of sculpture. She also held the position of head of the sculpture department. Catlett held these positions until her retirement in 1976.
Left-leaning, Catlett’s work continued to feature moments from Black and Mexican life. Seeking to use art in service of people her work from this period also included directly confrontational depictions of notable Black figures. These works and her participation in local strikes combined with her ties to the TGP which America viewed as a possible communist organization brought Catlett unwanted attention from the American government.
Deemed an “undesirable alien”, Catlett began to experience difficulties trying to visit America. In response, she renounced her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen in 1962. It wasn’t until 1971 that she was finally able to obtain a visa to attend an exhibit of her work in Harlem. Catlett’s American citizenship was reinstated in 2002.
Her work which commented on social issues became popular in Mexico but didn’t receive its just due in America until an exhibit of her work in 1993. Since then Catlett’s work has been exhibited by various museums and galleries. After her citizenship was reinstated, Catlett began to live and work between New York and Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Catlett continued to create art well into her 90s and received numerous awards. Her second marriage ended in 2002 after the death of her husband. Alice Elizabeth Catlett died on April 2, 2012, at the age of 96.
- Bartlett, Sarah. 2020. “Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012).” Blackpast.Org. December 10, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/catlett-elizabeth-1915/.
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- “Elizabeth Catlett: Artist Profile.” 2020. NMWA. May 27, 2020. https://nmwa.org/art/artists/elizabeth-catlett/.
- “Elizabeth Catlett’s Biography.” n.d. The HistoryMakers. Accessed May 9, 2023. https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/elizabeth-catlett-41.
- Rosenberg, Karen. 2012. “Elizabeth Catlett, Sculptor with Eye on Social Issues, Is Dead at 96.” The New York Times. The New York Times. April 4, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/04/arts/design/elizabeth-catlett-sculptor-with-eye-on-social-issues-dies-at-96.html.
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