In Memoriam: Elizabeth Catlett Remembered

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

Catlett received a Julius Rosenwald fellowship to study in Mexico in 1946, moved there and struck up a friendship with Rivera, and studied wood carving with Jose Ruiz and ceramic sculpture with Zuniga. It was there that she met her second husband, artist Francisco "Pancho" Mora, who she married in 1948. They had three boys, David, an artist; Juan, a filmmaker; and Francisco, a jazz musician.

Catlett was deeply influenced by her association with the Taller de Grafica Popular [The Peoples' Graphics Arts Workshop] whose defining principles included producing art of the highest quality, and creating art for the Mexican people. The group was dedicated to using its art to effect social change.

Catlett was an influential figure in the Black Arts and Civil Rights movements, and lived through just about every notable artistic and social movement in the last century, and she moved in some illustrious circles that included formidable artist Jacob Lawrence, black poet laureate Langston Hughes and singer, actor and civil rights icon Paul Robeson.

Catlett was never deterred by the wider society's attempts to corral her because of her sex and color.

For example, she recalled an incident in a 2003 Sculpture Magazine interview that crystallized her resistance.

"When I was teaching at Dillard University in New Orleans [1940-42], African Americans were not allowed into City Park, which was the site of the Delgado Museum. When they showed a Picasso retrospective I had seen at the Art Institute of Chicago, I wanted my students to see it. I had an art history class of about 130 students and had nothing to give them, except some old black and white slides of Greek and Roman art."

"You can imagine how it was. Suddenly with this exhibition I had an opportunity to talk to these students about what art is. An art educator at Sophie Newcomb College helped me. We went in a bus from the school. When we got out, we went into the museum on a Monday, when it was closed. Someone was waiting for us, beside Guernica. He talked to them about having an open mind and told them a little bit about Picasso, why he painted the mural, that it was Picasso's feeling about what was going on in Spain, about the Civil War. These sophomore students who'd never been in an art museum were running around, they were so excited. They were running from one room to the other and yelling, 'Come over here, see the woman in the mirror. Look at this hat.' For me, it was very emotional to see their reaction."

Catlett made a name for herself for her commitment to securing greater rights for workers, blacks and women in the United States and Mexico. Because she was arrested during a railroad workers' protest in Mexico City in 1958, the U.S. Department of State decided in 1962 to ban her from returning to the United States for nearly a decade because of her political affiliations.

Catlett secured Mexican citizenship in 1962.