SANTA BARBARA, CA - MAY 14: Artist Elizabeth Catlett attends Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball at the Bacara Resort and Spa on May 14, 2005 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Happy Black History Month! This is the 19th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. Each blog focuses on the life and career of a Black American whose life has shaped American history.

The focus of today’s blog is Elizabeth Catlett, the Black and Mexican artist who is known for her maternal paintings such as The Madonna as well as her portraits of Black leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Denied An Education Because of Race

Before she was even born in 1915 in Washington D.C., Elizabeth Catlett, unfortunately, lost her father (NMWA). Her single mother raised her along with her two siblings, while also working three jobs to make ends meet. After applying to the Carnegie Institute of Technology to pursue higher education, Catlett was refused admission because of her race. She then attended Howard University until 1935 when she graduated with honors. A few years later, she earned the first MFA in Sculpture at the University of Iowa (NMWA).

Different Mediums

While there, Catlett’s professor Grant Wood encouraged his students to explore all different kinds of mediums for art (NMWA). With this encouragement, Catlett created lithographs, linoleum cuts, and sculptures out of many different materials. She tried printmaking and also continued drawing and painting, focusing on capturing the Black female experience (NMWA).

Life in Mexico City

In the mid-1940s, Catlett got the opportunity to move to Mexico City through a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation (NMWA). She moved there with her husband Charles White, but once there, the marriage became strained. They soon divorced around the time Catlett became more involved with the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a group of local influential printmakers. Her involvement with the group led to her being banned from entering the United States after the group was deemed a “Communist Front Organization” (NMWA).

Art On Display

Catlett then met who would become her second husband, artist Francisco Mora (NMWA). Together, they had three children. In Mexico City, Catlett landed a teaching job at the National School of Fine Arts. She held the position there for almost 20 years. She finally retired from teaching in 1976 but remained creating art until her death in 2012 at age 96. There have been over 50 solo exhibitions at various art museums displaying her sculptures and paintings (NMWA).

In the book “Modern Women: Women Artists of the Moma” Catlett is quoted saying, “Artists should work to the end that love, peace, justice, and equal opportunity prevail all over the world; to the end that all people take joy in full participation in the rich material, intellectual, and spiritual resources of this world’s lands, peoples, and goods.”

Source: NMWA, Modern Women: Women at The Museum of Modern Art

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