April 15, 1915 – April 2, 2012
Elizabeth Catlett, renowned sculptor and artist, whose depictions of social issues and the politics of gender, race and deprivation made her one of the 20th century’s most important artists, died on Monday at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She was 96-years old.
In 2001 I had the honor of meeting Ms. Elizabeth Catlett at an art event here in North Carolina. With a career that had spanned over five decades, she gave a lively presentation sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of the events that had inspired her work over the years, work that honored the strength and dignity of Black women.
In the fall of 1932, fresh out of high school, Elizabeth Catlett showed up at the School of Fine and Applied Arts of the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, having been awarded a prestigious full scholarship there. But she was turned away when it was discovered that she was “colored.” She returned to her home in Washington to attend Howard University.
Seventy-six years later, that same institution that had rejected her, now Carnegie Mellon University, awarded her an honorary doctorate in recognition of a lifetime’s work as a sculptor and printmaker. By then, after decades of living and making art in Mexico, she’d known a wealth of rejection. And she had known even more success.
During my encounter with Ms. Catlett I recall her saying that “art made her happy” and had been a “significant part of fulfilling her life”. For me, she epitomized how we can triumph over adversity by staying true to who we are and what we love.
Ms. Catlett is survived by her sons, film director Juan Mora Catlett, jazz drummer Francisco Mora Catlett, and David Mora Catlett; 10 grandchildren, including granddaughter Naima Mora of America’s Next Top Model fame; and six great-grandchildren. My condolences to her family and friends.