Elizabeth Catlett-Mora is a master sculptor, painter, printmaker, activist and warrior. Catlett-Mora has demonstrated a life-long commitment to fighting injustices and showing her support in the struggle for equality for the poor and oppressed.
Elizabeth Catlett Mora was born on April 15, 1915 in Washington, D.C., the youngest of three children. Both parents were teachers.
She attended the Lucretia Mott Elementary School and Dunbar High School. Catlett decided to become an artist while attending Dunbar High School, and won a competitive examination for a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, but was rejected because of her race.
Catlett went on to study at Howard University with such luminaries as Dr. Alain Leroy Locke, Professor James A. Porter, James Lesense Wells, and Lois Mailou Jones. She studied design, printmaking and drawing.
In an interview in December 1981 in “Artist and Influence” magazine, she stated that she changed her major to painting because of the influence of James A. Porter, and because there was no sculpture division at Howard at the time.
In1934, she began work in the mural division of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). She received her BS cum laude from Howard in 1935. She then worked as a high school teacher in North Carolina, but left after two years, frustrated by the low teaching salaries, and returned to her education.
In 1940, Catlett became the first African American student to receive a master's of fine arts (MFA) degree in sculpture at the University of Iowa. While there, she was influenced by American landscape painter Grant Wood, who urged students to work with the subjects they knew best. It was at this point that her work began to focus on African Americans, especially women. Her piece “Mother and Child”, done in limestone in 1939 for her graduate thesis, won first prize in sculpture at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. She began to be recognized as an artist of not only technical accomplishment, but one with deeply felt purpose and artistic theme.
During the next few years, Catlett Mora became a university teacher, first in New Orleans and then in New York City. She continued to develop as an artist, gaining recognition from exhibitions at places such as the Modern Art Museum of Mexico and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
She studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1941, lithography at the Art Students League of New York in 1942 to 1943, and with sculptor Ossip Zadkine in New York in 1943.
Catlett became the 'promotion director' for the George Washington Carver School in Harlem located at 57 W. 125th St. Roy DeCarava was one of the students. Some of the teachers included Ernest Crichlow, Norman Lewis, and Charles White, who was, for a brief time, her husband.
In 1946, Catlett received a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship that allowed her to travel to Mexico where she studied wood carving with Jose L. Ruiz and ceramic sculpture with Francisco Zúñiga, at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura, Esmeralda, Mexico.
At a time in the United States when many artists were retreating into seclusion to escape the oppressive McCarthy hearings, Cartlett decided to return to Mexico where she had previously spent time while working on a Rosenfeld Fellowship.
In 1947, she married Mexican artist Francisco Mora, and made Mexico her permanent home, later becoming a Mexican citizen. They have three sons, including film director Juan Mora. Her granddaughter, Naima Mora, was the Cycle 4 winner of the America's Next Top Model television show. Catlett's sculpture, "Naima", is of Naima as a child.
In Mexico, she worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular, (People's Graphic Arts Workshop), a group of printmakers organized in 1937 by Leopoldo Méndez, Raúl Anguiano, Luis Arenal, and Pablo O'Higgins and dedicated to using their art to promote social change. There she and other artists created a series of linoleum cuts on black heroes. They "did posters, leaflets, collective booklets, illustrations for textbooks, posters and illustrations for the construction of schools, against illiteracy in Mexico.
She became the first female professor of sculpture and head of the sculpture department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, School of Fine Arts, San Carlos, in Mexico City, in 1958, and taught there until retiring in 1975. She continues to be active in the art community of Cuernavaca, Morelos.
She has received grants and fellowships which have allowed her to study in England, East Germany, China, and the Soviet Union.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, Catlett Mora garnered much critical recognition in both the United States and Mexico. She has received numerous awards including the Women's Caucus for Art. The Graphic Arts Workshop has won an international peace prize.
An Elizabeth Catlett Week was proclaimed in Berkeley, California, and an Elizabeth Catlett Day in Cleveland, Ohio.
She is an honorary citizen of New Orleans and has received the keys to many cities.
She received an honorary Doctorate from Pace University, in New York and was accompanied to the presentation by fellow sculptor and good friend Manuel Bennett.
In 2003, Catlett was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award, International Sculpture Center.
Some of her best-known prints are “Sharecropper“(1968 or 1970) and “Malcolm X Speaks for Us”(1969). Well-known sculptured pieces include “Dancing Figure” (1961), “The Black Woman Speaks” and “Target (1970), and “The Singing Head”. The National Council of Negro Women in New York City commissioned her to create a bronze sculpture, and her bronze relief adorns the Chemical Engineering Building at Howard University. In 2003 Catlett designed a memorial to author Ralph Ellison (“Invisible Man”), which stands in West Harlem, NY.
The Smithsonian Art Collectors Program commissioned Catlett in 1995 to create a print to benefit the educational and cultural programs put on by the Smithsonian Associates. The resulting lithograph, “Children With Flowers”, highlights the unity and diversity of children, and hangs in the ongoing exhibit “Graphic Eloquence” in the S. Dillon Ripley Center in the National Mall.
She has created numerous outdoor sculptures which are displayed in Mexico; in Jackson, Mississippi; New Orleans, LA; and, Washington, D.C.
Catletts prints have been exhibited all over the world and is represented in many collections through the world. Those collections include:
- the Institute of Fine Arts, Mexico;
- the Museum of Modern Art, NY;
- Museum of Modern Art, Mexico;
- National Museum of Prague;
- Library of Congress, Washington, D.C;
- Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA;
- State University of Iowa;
- Howard University;
- Fisk University;
- Atlanta University;
- the Barnett-Aden Collection, Tampa, Fl.;
- Schomburg Collection, NY;
- Rothman Gallery, L.A.;
- Museum of New Orleans,
- High Museum, Atlanta;
- the Metropolitan Museum, NY; and
- in numerous private and public collections.
On October 8, 2009, Swann Galleries auctioned Elizabeth Catlett’s life-size red cedar sculpture “Homage to My Young Black Sisters”, 1968, for $288,000—more than any previous work by the artist at auction. The prior record for a Catlett sculpture was set at Swann in February 2008 for a painted terra cotta work.
Regarded as a significant 20th century artist, Catlett-Mora's work exudes her complex character, pride, gentleness and brilliance. Many of her graphic works, expresses her genuine interest in the issues of race and ethnicity and in issues involving women.
Commenting on her passionate need to represent the human form, Catlett Mora said, "I wan the ordinary person to be able to relate to what I am doing. Working, figuratively, is the dues I must, want, and am privileged to pay so that ordinary people can relate to my work at and get lost trying to figure out what it means. True art always comes from cultural necessity."
Compiled from Wikipedia, http://www.airportfineart.com/ecallettbiopage.htm, http://rogallery.com/Catlett_Elizabeth/catlett_bio.htm, and http://www.iowalum.com/daa/mora.html.