The pioneering sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett died yesterday just two weeks shy of her 97th birthday, the Web site Black Art in America reported. She died at her home in Cuernavaca, 40 miles south of Mexico City, where she had lived since using a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to travel to Mexico in 1946.
Her smoothed, stylized sculptures — which she made primarily in wood, bronze, and black marble — portrayed archetypal subjects like a mother holding her child. Her more hard-edged prints feature some of the same classical subjects while also incorporating portraits of gaunt yet noble agricultural laborers, as in the striking 1952 lithograph "Sharecropper."
Catlett was born in Washington, D.C., in 1915 to parents who were both teachers — though her father died before she was born. She earned her Bachelor of Science in art at Howard University — she was originally offered a full scholarship to Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Carnegie Mellon University, though she was denied enrollment when the institution discovered she was black — and later received an MFA from the University of Iowa, where "American Gothic" painter Grant Wood was her mentor. Two years ago Catlett told The Root that Grant managed to convince the university to give her and a male student its first ever masters' in sculpture. After graduating she followed in her parents' footsteps and became a teacher, first at Dillard University in New Orleans, and then, during the second World War, at the George Washington Carver School on 125th Street in Harlem. She remained an avid student, taking ceramics courses at the Art Institute of Chicago and learning lithography at New York's Art Students League.
She and her first husband, the artist Charles White, traveled to Mexico City on the Rosenwald Fellowship in 1946, where she joined the highly political Taller de Gráfica Popular (The People's Graphic Arts Workshop), an institution which was frequented by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and other members of the Mexican avant-garde. There she studiet with the sculptors Jose L. Ruiz and Francisco Zúñiga and met her second husband, the Mexican painter Francisco Mora (who died in 1973). Catlett became a Mexican citizen soon after the U.S. Embassy asked her to provide the names of Communists she knew in 1955. In 1958 she joined the faculty of the School of Fine Arts of Mexico's National Autonomous University, becoming its first woman professor. She continued to teach there until she retired in 1975. She is included in the National Museum of Art in Mexico City.
She continued to make art, however, and enjoyed major solo shows at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia in 2010, and at Florida's Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in February of 2011. In the spring of 2010, her 10-foot-tall sculpture of singer Mahalia Jackson was installed near a 1975 sculpture she created of jazz great Louis Armstrong in New Orleans's Treme neighborhood. She is survived by her three children, including her son David Mora, who was her assistant for nearly a half-century. Her granddaughter Naima Mora won the fourth season of the reality television show "America's Next Top Model." Catlett received a lifetime achievement award from Trenton's National Sculpture Center in 2003.