In Memoriam: Elizabeth Catlett Remembered

Barrington M. Salmon | 4/12/2012, 4:06 p.m.

Artist Regarded as a Giant of 20th and 21st Centuries

Accolades have been pouring in following the April 2 death of renowned artist, sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett.

Catlett, 96, died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, which she had made her home for the past 60 years.

She gained international fame for sculptures and prints that focused on different elements of black life, as well as issues revolving around civil and human rights. Her style is said to have best reflected the social realism brought to the fore by artists like famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, her mentor Grant Wood and her first husband artist Charles White.

The Washington, D.C. native was revered by admirers, former students and colleagues, including David C. Driskell. Driskell is a longtime friend who was very fond of Catlett, who he met for the first time in the 1960s.

"She was one of the great voices of the 20th and 21st centuries," said Driskell, 81, a prominent and highly respected painter, who is also a printmaker, collagist, writer, consultant, curator, art historian and educator. "She was a real, dedicated artist, a professional of the first order and she was dedicated to social issues and principles. She established herself as one of our great artists. I gave a lecture last week where I referred to her as 'the Queen Mother of African American and American art' because of her loyalty and dedication to her craft."

Driskell said he was always struck by Catlett's seamless blend of art and the human condition, including critiques of American society and its power structures that perpetuated racism, injustice, discrimination and gender inequality.

"[For her,] art had a function beyond being beautiful," he explained.

Catlett was born in the District on April 15, 1915. She is a graduate of Dunbar Senior High School, earned a bachelor's degree from Howard University and a masters in fine arts from the University of Iowa.

Camille Ajeku, director of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum, said she has been an admirer of Catlett since high school and mentioned the artist's simplicity, technique and sensitivity.

"Catlett was just a giant in the arts. She was phenomenal. She believed in giving back to the community," she said. "She was a phenomenal woman, a phenomenal artist and she inspired a lot of up-and-coming artists. She was revered by several cultures - Mexicans embraced her as did African Americans. She really cross-pollinated two cultures."

While living and working in Harlem, Catlett was married briefly to White, himself an acclaimed artist.

Driskell said after his friend trained at Howard University, she "went down to study with Mexican masters such as Rivera, [Jose Clemente] Orozco, [Francisco] Zuniga. That figured prominently in the way she saw art," he said.

In a 2003 interview with Michael Brenson that appeared in Sculpture Magazine, Catlett explained her artistic purpose.

"Since the '40s, my first aim has been to reach African American people ... I felt art was part of education, that it was a necessary part of education for people who were illiterate. I wanted my work to reach people who didn't have access to museums," she said.