Elizabeth Catlett, Graphic artist and Sculptor, Died at 96

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Dead, Elizabeth Catlett on April 2, 2012 at 96, she was an African-American graphic artist and sculptor best known for her depictions of the African-American experience in the 20th century, which often had the female experience as their focus.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 1915 to parents working in education, and was the grandchild of freed slaves.

It was difficult for a black woman in this time to pursue a career as a working artist, and Catlett devoted much of her career to teaching.

Catlett did her undergraduate studies at Howard University although it was not her first choice. She was admitted into the Carnegie Institute of Technology but she was refused admission when the school found out she was black.

But in 2007, as Cathy Shannon of E&S Gallery, was giving a talk to a youth group at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, PA she recounted Catlett’s tie to Pittsburgh because of this injustice.

Fortunately, an administrator with Carnegie Mellon University was in the audience and heard the story for the first time.

She immediately told the story to the school’s president, Jared Leigh Cohon who was unaware of it as well, and deeply appalled that such a thing had happened.

She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1940 from the University of Iowa, where she had gone to study with Grant Wood, regionalist painter.

His teaching dictum was “paint what you know best,” and this set her on the path of dealing with her own background.

In 1940, her painting “Mother and Child,” depicting African-American figures, won her much recognition.

She also studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York City.

From 1944 to 1946, she taught at the George Washington Carver School, an alternative community school in Harlem that provided instruction for working men and women of the city.

In 1946, Catlett received a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to travel with her husband to Mexico and study.

She accepted the grant in part because at the time American art was trending toward the abstract while she was interested in art related to social themes.

Shortly after moving to Mexico that same year, Catlett divorced White.

In 1947, she entered the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a workshop dedicated to graphic promoting leftist social causes and education.

There she met printmaker and muralist Francisco Mora, who she married in the same year.

The couple had three children, all of whom developed careers in the arts: Francisco in jazz music, Juan in filmmaking and David in the visual arts.

The last worked as his mother’s assistant doing the heavy aspects of sculpting when she no longer could.

In 1948, she entered the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado “La Esmeralda” to study wood sculpture with José L. Ruíz and ceramic sculpture with Francisco Zúñiga During this time in Mexico she became more serious about her war and more dedicated to the work it demanded.

She also met Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and David Alfaro Siqueiros .

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