Elizabeth Catlett was born on April 15, 1915 in Washington, DC. Her father worked as a professor at the Tuskegee Institute and passed away prior to her birth. Her mother was educated as a teacher and worked as a truant officer in Washington’s public schools. She grew up listening to stories about enslavement from her grandmothers and witnessing the harsh realities of being black in America from her mother. These experiences taught her about the suffering and exploitation of African-Americans in the United States. She expressed an interest in art at an early age and these narratives helped to shape her artistic vision. Her art work features the life of Mexican working-class women and history of African-Americans particularly racial injustice and the struggle for civil rights. In 1931, she graduated from Howard University, a historically black university in DC, cum laude with a degree in art. As an undergraduate, Catlett studied design, drawing and printmaking with Lois Mailou Jones, James Lesesne Wells and James Porter who were prominent black artists of the Harlem Renaissance.
She received her M.F.A. from the State University of Iowa in 1940. For her master’s thesis, she created Negro Mother and Child, a sculpture that symbolized black women’s love, beauty, strength and resistance. Her sculpture challenges the popular belief that black mothers were only mammies but lacked the maternal instincts toward their own children. Catlett often uses her art to debunk stereotypes about black and brown people. Her intimate relationships with her mother and maternal grandmother shaped her understanding of black women and maternity with their children which also influenced this piece. The piece was awarded first prize in sculpture when exhibited in the 1940 Chicago American Negro Exposition. The theme is reflected in much of her work.
Negro Mother and Child, 1940
She also depicted this theme using lithograph. In this print, Catlett focused on tonal gradations. She used deep shadows and bright highlights to make them appear almost sculptural. I love how this piece balances the beauty of a relationship between a mother and child and the strength in the arms of the mother. The shading from the lighting in the piece helps to define the arm muscle. The piece also makes the mother and child appear physically connected which also can reflect an emotional connection.
Mother and Child, 1944
In 1945, she received a Julius Rosenwald Foundation grant to create a multimedia series on the theme of "The Negro Woman." to illustrate the identity of black women over time. The following year, she decided to go to Mexico to work on the project. One of the pieces of the series was entitled Bread (or the Right to Eat). It celebrates the concept of agrarian reform in Mexico. The piece features varying line weights and also uses the technique of negative space. The use of negative space brings out the wheat featured in the background.
Bread (or the Right to Eat), 1968
She also used her art as a form of activism. Catlett addressed the most disturbing injustices against African Americans including lynchings and beatings. She created one of her best-known sculptures, Target in 1970 in response to the police shooting a Black Panther. It shows a black man's head framed by a rifle sight, a response to both the Vietnam War and the terror in black ghettoes. The piece raises awareness about issues of police brutality.
In January of 1970, her work was featured in Ebony magazine in an article titled “My Art Speaks for Both My Peoples,” bringing her increased visibility and notability. I appreciated her work because despite her fame, she always remained committed to depicting the experiences of black Americans. I love how she uses her work as social justice like in “Target”. She inspired me to think about how drawing techniques create experiences like struggle but also the relationship between strength and beauty as many of her pieces depicted.
Herzog, Melanie Anne. "Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012)" American Art 26.3 (Fall 2012): 105-109
Herzog, Melanie Anne. Elizabeth Catlett: an American artist in Mexico. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000. Print.
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