The People’s Artist

Post by Marc Craig

“We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have done.”  Longfellow

Born on April 15, 1915 in Washington D.C., Elizabeth Catlett began her interest in art at an early age. “I knew from the time I was very young that I wanted to be an artist.” She wasn’t exactly sure what it meant to be an artist, but her father John, a teacher who died before she was born, had made wood carvings in his spare time that were displayed around the house.

Catlett did her undergraduate studies at Howard University. Her professor was artist Lois Mailou Jones. At the time, the idea of a career as an artist for blacks was farfetched so Elizabeth did her undergraduate studies with the aim of being a teacher. At Howard University she found an affinity with African and Pre-Columbian Art and German Expressionist. Because Catlett became interested in work of landscape artist Grant Wood, she entered the graduate program of the University of Iowa. Wood advised her to depict images of what she knew best, so Catlett began sculpting images of African-American women and children. She taught sculpture at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1946 under the direction of famed art educator and scholar Viktor Lowenfeld.

Her work is a mixture of abstract and figurative in the modernist tradition, with influence from African and Mexican art traditions. According to the artist, the main purpose of her work is to convey social messages rather than pure aesthetics. “I make work for my people” Catlett has said “Not for an elite, and I’ve paid the price for my commitment.”

I’ve admired Elizabeth Catlett since my introduction to her style of art in art appreciation class in college. What a pleasant surprise to discover my aunt Dr. Evelyn Heard was a patron of the artist! In 1970, my aunt and uncle traveled to the studio of Elizabeth Catlett in Cuernavaca, Morelos Mexico. They purchased a wooden carved sculpture titled Black Flag for $2000.00. Years later, the work of art was appraised at $4000.00. Aunt Evelyn even has a hand written letter from Elizabeth Catlett explaining the meaning behind the title of the work of art. She recently donated this wonderful work of art to the Hampton University Art Museum.

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