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Obit of the Day: Artist Elizabeth Catlett

When Elizabeth Catlett began making art, African American artists were expected to reflect a Euro-centric style. Ms. Catlett, however, ignored conventions and spent her career producing sculptures and prints that celebrated black culture - its men, women, and heroes - that so many other artists ignored.

Elizabeth Catlett began as a high school teacher after graduating from Howard University. (She was admitted to Carnegie Mellon’s Carnegie Institute of Technology but they withdrew their offer when they learned she was black.) She eventually found her way to the University of Iowa in the hopes of learning from the legendary Grant Wood. She earned her M.F.A. and while there first sculpted portraits of black women and children from wood.

Ms. Catlett ended up in Mexico in 1946 on a fellowship - and never left. It was while in Mexico that she created her most memorable works. In 1962, she renounced her U.S. citizenship and was declared by the U.S. State Department to be an “undesirable alien.” It did not hinder her career. In 1958, she was named the head of the sculpture department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s School of Fine Arts; also becoming the university’s first female professor of sculpture. 

Her works have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Museum of Prague and the High Museum in Atlanta. (Personal note: OOTD saw her works for the first time at the Art Institute in 2006 and fell in love with her prints, which is why those are the images I selected.)

Elizabeth Catlett died at the age of 96.

Images:

Left - “Sojourner Truth” from The Negro Woman, 1946-1947, linoleum cut

Center - “Malcolm X Speaks for Us,” 1969, linoleum cut and composition

Right - “Harriet Tubman” from The Negro Woman, 1956-1947, linoleum cut

(Images are copyright of Elizabeth Catlett and courtesy of artsandartists.org, left; the Museum of Modern Art, center; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, right)

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