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Art and identity: Elizabeth Catlett.

Style and Imagery

Many artists speak eloquently about who they are and where they come from in the images they create, and in the styles and media they choose to convey their artistic ideas. A work of art can reveal an artist's sense of identity as an individual, and also as a member of a society and a culture. This sense of identity can alter over time with the changing circumstances of an artist's life. Such chages can have an impact on the artist's work as well.

Elizabeth Carlett is an African-American sculptor and graphic artist who has lived and worked in Mexico for many years. While her identity as an African-American woman is at the core of the stylistic language and content of her art, her style and imagery has also been shaped by her experience in Mexico. The work of the Mexican uralists was well-known in te United States, and Cat;ett was drawn to the social and political cosciousness manifested in this public art for, as well as to the murals' style and imagery. She was also familiar with the strong graphic arts tradition of Mexico, and with the work of the Taller de Grafica Popular (People's Graphic Arts Workshop), a Mexican graphics collective that produced many prnts in support of workerss unions and antifascis, illustratios for literacy programs and images of working and poor people. Carlette became a member of the Taller, and during her twenty-year association with them, developed a graphic language based in the style of the Taller artist. While she has continued to work in this style, her prints have increasingly taken on a variety of characteristics, particularly rhythms and patterns derive from African art. Carlett's prints are similar to those of her fellow Taller artists in their characteristics texture, rhythms and stark dramatic angularity. Her prints are unique in their subject, however, in relation to work produced by other artists at the Taller. Carletts's subjects are almost always derived from her African-American heritage and centered on the depiction of the Black woman.

Carlett's predominant theme in her sculpture and prints is Black woman's strenght, dignity and pride. This is conveyed by the style as well as the subject of her work. Mother with child (centerspread) depicts this theme in a simplified, realist style. The angle of the woman's head and her facial expression give this figure of gentle dignity. The solidity of the woman's pose imbuse this relatively small, carved-wood sculpture with a felling of monumentality, as does the artist's simplification of the figures of the woman an dchild to their essential forms, forgoing any extraneous detail. the forms of the woman and the child are treated in a geometric, slightly abstract style, suggesting sources of inspiration that include African, Mexican and pre-Columbian sculpture as well as European and American Modernism.

The softened angularity, smooth planar surfaces and masklike faces of the two figures recall the African sculptural traditions that Carlett regards as part of her artistic heritage, and the pre-Colubian sculpture that has inspired her during her stay in Mexico. Much of her sculpture, like much African sculpture, is carved of wood. She also works with clay, using the techniques of the pre-columbian sculptural tradition she learned in Mexico.

Catlett's Mother with Child is also similar to the solid, moumental, simplified forms of much mexican and United States sculpture form the 1930s and 1940s, a style the artist has continued to findeffective for conveying the meaning of her work. Like her printmaking, Catlett's sculpture has remained figurative throghout her career. Her sculptural treatment of the figure, however, ranges from depictions of African-American women as workers and mothers in the simplified realist style of her Mother with Child, to more abstract depictions of similar subjects. Her intention is to create images that speak to her primarily African-American audience about their heritage and their lives. She believess that she can acheive this goal through work that ranges from figurative to abstract. "After all," Catlett has said,"abstract art was born in Africa."

Key Concepts

* Artists speak about their individual, and their social or cultural identity and heritage through their work. * Mexican artists are known for using murals to express their social and political beliefs. * European and American Moderism is often inspired by African, exican and Pre-Columbian art forms. * Artists can draw on many styles and periods of art for inspiration and methods of expression. * Artists often choose an artistic language that they feel their audienc will understand.


Born in Washington, DC, Elizabeth Catlett grew up with a strons sense of cross-cultural justice rooted in the Black community as a social worker, and her maternal grandmother's experiences of slavery. Her lifelong oppression was manifested early in her life in her participation in demonstrations at the United States Supreme Court against lynching, and her involvement in the fight to gain equal pay for African-American teachers in North Carolina.

Catlett's art training began at Howard University, where she studied with Lois Mailou Jones, James Porter and James Wells. Her introductio to the art of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera prompted her to change her major from design to painting. She continued her studies at the State University of Iowa with Grant Wood, who encouraged her to develop as a sculptor, and to make art about what she knew best With this endcouragement, Catlett took the Black woman as her subject. She received her M.F.A. from the State Uiversity of Iowa in 1940. The following year, her thesis carving, limestone Mother and Child, won first prize in sculpture at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago.

Catlett spent the early 1940s teaching art at colleges and in communit-based programs. She studied lithography at the Art students' League in New York, and worked with Modernist sculptor Ossip Zadkine. In 1945, she received a Julius Rosenwald Foundation grant to create a multimedia series on the theme of "The Negro Woman." When the grant was renewed the following year, she decided to go to Mexico to work on the project.

While working as a graphic artist in Mexico, Catlett studied ceramic sculpture with Francisco Zuniga, and woodcarving with Jose L. Ruiz. In 1958, she became the first woman professor of sculpture at the National Autonomous Uiversity of Mexico in Mexico City, a position she held until her retirement in 1975.

Elizabeth Catlett became a Mexican citizen in 1962. she is married to Mexican artist Francisco Mora, also a member of the Taller de Grafica Popular, and they have three sons. Her commitment to the creation of socially engaged art was priary in her decision to make Mexico her home. The cultural climate of Mexico in the 1940s provided an environment sympathetic to her social and artistic concerns.

Carlett has achieved a grat deal of recogition as a printmaker and sculptor in the United States, as well as in Mexico. Contemporary African-American artists consistently acknowledge her as inspirational in their artistic development. She exhibits widely in the United States, and though her work can be seen in major museums, her primaru commitment is to bring her art to the African-American community; to speak to them about racial pride and the dignity of the American heritage.

Suggested Activities


* Sculptural images of the human figure range from realistic to abstract. Show students examples of figurative sculpture from a variety of cultures and periods. Encourage them to discuss the diverst styles. Point out differences in proportion,use of detail and approaches to form. explore reasons why artists might choose various ways of sculpting the figure. Have students work with clay to model figures and discuss the choices they made in thheir approaches.

* Elizabeth Catlett portrays her subjects based on pride in her identity and heritage. Discuss ways that Catlett and other artists convey a sense of personal and cultural identity through their choice of imagery. Students can work with a variety of media to make drawings, prints, painting or sculpture about who they are, portraying aspects of their identity that are important to them.

* Techical aspects of printmaking lend themselves to particular stylistics approaches. Show students exaples of limoleum cuts, woodblock prints and other types of printmaking. What makes these images easy to reproduce stylistically as well as technically? Discuss characteristic aspects of the prints, such as their linear quality, use of contrast rather tha tonal graduation and emphasis on texture and pattern. Older students can make linoleum or woodblock prints (ironing the linoleum and cutiiing it while it is warm makes it easier to work with); younger students can make relief prints by cutting shapes of cardboard and gluing them to a base to make a printing block.


* Using the examoles of work by Catlett and other artists, dicuss ways that artists convey a sense of individually or in groups to research how artist look to diverse traditions for ways to speak artistically about their sense of who they are. Have students present their findings, and discuss how reference to one's heritage in artmaking might be different from borrowig styles or images from other cultural traditions.

* For centuries, artist have made sculptural images of the human figure in a variety of media and styles. Have students find examples of a variety of ways to depict the human figure in sculpture, and discuss possible reasons for the diversity they encounter. What does this diversity suggest about the intentions of the sculptors and the meanings of their works? Students should try differet appraches to sculpting the figure. Have them carve plaster or wood and model figures in clay. Ask them to consider how they have to think differently about the figure depending on mmaterials and technique. What stylistic choices can they make?
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Article Details
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Author:Herzog, Melanie
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Biography
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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