publication of the International Sculpture Center
to Contents page>
Bronze, 11.5 x 5.75 x 6.5 in.
courtesy June Kelly Gallery,
That Achieves Sympathy
with Elizabeth Catlett
by Michael Brenson
was born in 1915 in Washington, DC. Her mother, who raised her, and her
father, who died before her birth, were children of slaves; both were
teachers in the DC public school system. Catlett received her BA from
Howard University and her MFA from the University of Iowa, where her sculpture
career began. For more than 30 years, in Durham, New Orleans,
Manhattan, and Mexico City, she was an educator, teaching and administering
students of all ages, most with little or no access to cultural and institutional
power. In the 1940s, she met an extraordinary array of intellectuals driven
by a similar sense of aesthetic and social purpose. In
New York: Gwendolyn Bennett, W.E.B. Dubois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes,
and Paul Robeson. In Mexico City, where she moved in 1946: Diego Rivera,
Frida Kahlo, and David Alfaro Siquieros. In 1947
Catlett began a decisive affiliation with the Taller de Grafica Popular
(Graphic Arts Workshop), where developing an art of the highest
quality possible and creating art for the people of Mexico
were defining principles. There she met the painter and printmaker Francisco
Mora (Pancho), whom she married in 1948, and with whom she
had three sons, Francisco, Juan, and David, all of whom are professionally
involved in the arts. In the aftermath of the McCarthy years, Catletts
class, and gender injustice drew the ire of the U.S. government. The same
conviction and legibility, combined with her human and aesthetic constancy
and grace, made her an influential figure in the Civil Rights and Black
Arts movements. In 1983, while based in Cuernavaca, she and Pancho bought
an apartment in Battery Park City, in the shadow of the World Trade Center,
where they spent a couple of months a year. Last spring Pancho died. In
September, she proudly announced at a lecture that she was once again
an American citizen. Elizabeth Catlett is the recipient of the International
Sculpture Centers 2003 Lifetime
Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award.
What made you want to be a sculptor? What explains your love for it,
and the pleasure you take in making it?
I always liked to work with my hands. I knit and sew and crochet. But
I had never had any sculpture training until I went to the University
of Iowa . I went to get an MFA so I wouldnt have to
do what I was doing, teaching
in a high school in the South, in Durham. I went because I had heard of
Grant Wood. I was very ignorant about art, really. When I was at Howard
University , I used to come to New York and go to art exhibitions,
and I was very moved by some, painting mostly, and by the sculpture garden
at the Modern. I used to sit out there and look at the sculpture. I began
to work in sculpture in Iowa and got notions from Wood about a plan for
working. I just liked working with my hands better than I liked painting.
Stone carving was my thesis, and that was all I did. I didnt do
any wood carving there.
sculptors did you admire in the beginning? Ive heard you mention
Barlach, Arp, and Henry Moore.
EC: In the
beginning, I admired Moore. I saw a book of his work in a bookstore. I
didnt have the money to buy it, and my mother bought it for me.
My admiration for Arp
and Barlach came later, especially when I visited Hamburg .
Stepping Out, 2000. Bronze, 30 x 9.5 x 8.5 in.
June Kelly Gallery,
you feel when you started making sculpture that you were talking to them
or to other sculptors?
EC: Not so
much talking as trying to follow. The sculptors I had seen were in New
York in the early 40s, like Chaim Gross. I was more interested in
figurative sculpture, and the abstract feeling in figurative sculpture,
using forms to express some kind of feeling.
did you start to think about Pre-Columbian and African sculpture?
art was firstwhen I visited the Barnes Collection in the 30s.
Pre-Columbian was after I went to the anthropological museum in Mexico
almost the first day I was there in 46.
you trying to make figurative work with an abstract feeling that was connected
to these other traditions?
EC: Yes, over
a period of time. I was trying to learn how they used form to express
an emotion or an idea. I found more of it in African and Pre-Columbian
sculpture than I did in a lot of other work. And I found the same thing
in Moores work, but not in Barbara Hepworths. Her work was
got you to Mexico?
EC: I was working
on a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship grant in 45. The first year that
I had the grant I did only one sculpture and one painting. The fellowship
people told me that if I got out of New York, they would renew the grant.
I had a project that I wanted to do about black women. I went to Mexico
and that was the perfect place.
EC: The members of
the Taller de Grafica Popular were working on a portfolio of the history
of Mexico, and I was working on the history of black women. I was going
to one of the art schools to learn the pre-Hispanic system of building
clay for terra-cotta sculpture. I had worked with Ossip Zadkine in New
York, and he beat the clay into the form that he wanted and then cut it
in half and hollowed it out. I wanted to find out about the coil system,
and I was working with Francisco Zúñiga at one of the art
schools. I got there in the morning to work, and then in the afternoon
I would go to the Taller. They had a press and litho stones. I was also
learning how to work in linocuts.
Paulina, 2001. Mahogany,
18 x 8.25 x 11.5 in.
Juan Mora Catlett
MB: Did you wind
up preferring Zúñigas method?
EC: Yes. It was the
pre-Hispanic method. I felt that it had more of a clay form, like pots;
I felt that it was more characteristic of clay to build it up with coils.
suggesting that there was something about the method that connected art
to a more functional way of working and thinking, or to something more
rooted in everyday life.
EC: Yes, both. And
that it was more connected to cultural traditions that had existed for
centuries. Like the stone carving or the ceramics of the Pre-Columbian
period. And the woodcarving of the Africans.
MB: Can you define
a bit more the difference between the Zúñiga and pre-Hispanic
ways of working and the way Zadkine worked stone, wood, or clay?
EC: For a ceramic
sculpture, you build up in clay. First of all, the clay has to be the
same thickness if youre going to fire it, which is the way you do
it with pots. Zadkine made a solid sculpture instead of a hollow one.
He pounded the clay with a mallet, a stick, or his fists and hollowed
it afterwards. His stone and wood carvings were direct. He used concave
and convex forms interchangeably. I think he was influenced, as many of
the Modernists were, by the use of abstract form in African sculpture.
But not in the technique of terra-cotta sculpture.
MB: Is Zúñigas
way of working clay, his feeling for form, volume, and surface, also reflected
in the way you think about your work in wood and stone?
EC: Yes, with wood
I also work the surface more. Because Im working with the grain,
and I emphasize it sometimesmaybe with the fullness of an arm or
the roundness of a hip. If I see a grain I might change the form a little.
MB: But you think
about the surface in a similar way, no matter what material you work with?
EC: I do texture
sometimes in clay and in wood, a little bit, not much. But I want the
surface to show the character of the material. Also to find the light
MB: When you were
at the Taller you were doing sculpture and printmaking at the same time.
Did you then consider yourself more of a sculptor than a printmaker or
EC: More of a sculptor,
but I like printmaking, too. I have to work at completely separate times
MB: What you did
in sculpture and printmaking were quite different. How did you see the
relationship between those two media?
EC: Printmaking had
to do with the moment. I thought of sculpture as something more durable
and timeless, and I felt that it had to be more general in the idea that
I was trying to express. Something with emotion, and the relation between
form and emotion. Once I spent some hours looking at a book of African
sculpture and drawing the eyes, the direction and the size and the relation
of the eyes. And looking at it to see what the form expressed. Things
like that. Form was what interested me more. With printmaking, I was trying
to get a message across more, something to think about.
MB: Did you feel
that the audiences for sculpture and printmaking were different or the
EC: The same. With
printmaking, I was particularly influenced by the Taller. I felt art was
part of education, that it was a necessary part of education for people
who were illiterate. I wanted my work to reach people who didnt
have access to museums. Since the 40s, my first aim has been to
reach African American people. When I was teaching at Dillard University
in New Orleans , 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 Picassos feeling about what
was going on in Spain, about the Civil War. These sophomore students whod
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.
Homage to My Young Black Sisters, 1968.
68 x 12 x 12 in.
MB: Did it lead
to discussions about what art is?
EC: Oh yes. I went
up with them and theyre looking at a rooster, and theyre saying,
Thats not a rooster; I said, Well, thats
not the way a rooster looks, thats the way Picasso feels about a
rooster. In the first place, we all know its not a rooster, its
a painting. On the bus going back, they were talking about what
they liked and what they didnt like. The next time we had class,
I got to talk to them about the exhibition and what they saw and felt
about it. I thought it was horrible that these kids had never been to
an art museum, and thats one of my purposes. I want to get black
people into museums.
MB: How did you
think your work would do that?
EC: Not my work;
black people go when theres something they relate to. And Mexicans.
Remember when they had that big retrospective at the Detroit Institute
of Arts, when they discovered those Diego Rivera cartoonstracing
drawingsfrom the huge auto production line murals about the Ford
River Rouge plant. The cartoons were rolled up in the museums basement.
Busloads of Chicanos came to see that show, whod never been to a
museum, because it was Diego and because it was about Mexico. Take the
African Museum in Washington, black people go to that museum like white
people go to the Metropolitan. When Roy DeCarava had a photo show at the
Museum of Modern Art, it was packed with black people. There was a show
of Jacob Lawrence at the Brooklyn Museum, and a group of us arranged for
it to be open one night for black people from Brooklyn. It was the same
thing. My husband told Jake, the people are looking at the people in the
pictures, and the people in the pictures are looking back at them.
MB: If you wanted
to get black people into museums, you must have been thinking about making
art that could exist in museums.
EC: No. I have never
thought about getting myself in museums or making a lot of money. I was
thinking about people. I still am. And getting the work of black artists
MB: When you say
EC: Like the people
you see in the subway or walking up and down the street. People in Harlem.
I worked in Harlem at the George Washington Carver school. And we had
classes such as meet the author, sculpture, painting, and
printmaking. I wanted to work for people like that, who didnt have
MB: How does that
hope get into your approach to your work?
EC: Im thinking
of those people when Im working. And I ask a lot of people while
Im working, like a woman who works for us, and my friends. I ask
people about what Im doing. If they say, I dont understand
that, I have to work on it some. I have to see what it is they dont
MB: When you say
you think about them while you work, what does that mean?
EC: I think about
the way they look, I mean characteristics or movements: black people are
different, you know what I mean? The shape of black women is different.
At the same time, I ask myself what they would think about what Im
doing. Im thinking mainly about how they feel, and about form if
Im working in sculpture. Im thinking about a form that would
MB: Clearly many
people are moved by your work.
EC: Maybe its
because Im thinking about them when Im working.
MB: Can you talk
about your process of working, single out a sculpture in your show at
June Kelly Gallery last spring and talk about its development?
EC: That black marble
head, Naima: we have twin granddaughters who came to stay with us one
summer, they were studying Spanish. I kept looking at one of them, who
has a very dynamic personality. I thought I would like to do a head of
her. And then it was the shape of her hair with a knot at the back. It
was a whole different shape. She posed for me a little bit, to get the
general shape of it. She has a little bump in her nose that I wanted to
MB: Did you draw
EC: No. But I took
a photograph of her from the side to see some details, like a curve in
the back of her hair as it went up the neck and where it moved into her
MB: Before you
went to marble, did you work in clay?
EC: I did a terra-cotta
head. I put a little band on it; she had a band around her hair in the
back. I made a blue band, and they fired it and I didnt like it.
I thought maybe I could do it better in the marble.
MB: Was the marble
cut down for you?
EC: It was roughed
out by the man I work with. He roughs it out, and then I go to him and
we work together some on it. What happened at the end was that David,
my son and assistant, sanded and polished it.
my understanding that very often before you reach the final version in
wood or the stone, there is some kind of intermediary material, whether
its terra cotta or something else.
EC: Sometimes. The
piece I did thats in the Metropolitan [Woman Fixing Her Hair, 1993]the
woman with her hands up on her hairI was going to do that in bronze,
and I made a little direct plaster figure. When I was measuring the wood
that I had, I couldnt get the elbows the way I wanted. So I thought:
What would I do with the elbows? I wanted one out and one in. We added
a piece of wood to make the arm like that. You change as youre working.
MB: When did you
move to Cuernavaca?
EC: In the early
70s. By this time Mexico City was full of smog. I had been teaching
at the National School of Fine Arts, part of the National Autonomous University
of Mexico, and they had changed the whole program. Before, artists were
teaching technique and other things, and now they felt it was old-fashioned
and they brought in some people with new ideas but with no experience
in art, a lot of theoreticians. For example, we had a strike once and
some first-year students came over to ask me what they should do. I told
them that when youre on strike you defend the strike, thats
what you do. These students had been sanding plasticpolyesterand
I asked them what kind of sandpaper they were using. They said regular
sandpaper. They were using it dry, and I asked, Do you have any
type of protection? No. So I said, Well, wet the sandpaper
and put something over your nose and mouth, please. Polyester resin
is very toxic. Furthermore, I said, You shouldnt be doing
it anyhow when youre on strike. Well, they went back and told
the teacher what I said, and he said that I was very picky. I was very
picky. The main change in the school was to make sculpture, painting,
and printmaking electives. And they had fancy names for other courses.
But it wasnt working, and what I ended up with was students who
would come in and say, What can I do in an hour? At the same
time, I had about eight Japanese students who came in at seven a.m., worked
all day long, and cooked and ate at school. But the whole idea was to
develop sculptors in Mexico, not in Japan. So I retired in 72. I
retired because of my arthritis as well.
MB: And moved
to Cuernavaca then?
EC: In 77.
Fluted Head, 1997.
Bronze, 13.75 x 8.5 x 7.5 in.
courtesy June Kelly Gallery,
never thought of leaving there and settling in New York?
EC: No. For one thing
I had changed my citizenship because once I was arrested. There was a
list of Americans whom the police were picking up. There was a big strike
and a lot of police brutality. This was in September 1958, during a big
strike of the railroad workers in Mexico. My husband had been making linoleum
prints for the cover of the railroad workers magazine. I was told
later that they waited on the street until my husband went out to a party.
About 11 p.m. three men from the Gobernacion (Interior Department) knocked
at the door and asked for my papers. Then they carried me down the stairs
and into a carone with his arm under my neck, one on each side holding
onto my armsand took me to a house. They said I was unwelcome in
Mexico and locked me up in the house with two Cuban women and a German
woman without papers. The government arrested hundreds of peopleeven
relatives who came looking for family membersanyone who could possibly
have any connection with the railroad union and the strike, including
political expatriates who migrated to Mexico in the late 40s and
50s. Some were from the Hollywood Ten. Some were Communists. Some
were people questioned by McCarthy who fled the U.S. They were from many
MB: Did they charge
you with anything?
EC: No, they just
locked me up. By Monday night my husband and his lawyer had persuaded
the Secretary of Education, who knew all of us for our work in the T.G.P.,
to get me released. I was married to a Mexican, but it took the Secretary
of Education to get me out. Thats when I decided I was going to
be a Mexican citizen. Later on, I went to Cuba with a Mexican delegation
of women, and I dont know whether that had anything to do with it
but the U.S. Embassy decided I was an undesirable foreigner. I couldnt
visit the U.S. My mother got sick and she was going to have surgery and
I wanted to come. They called me to the embassy and asked me to write
something that had to be certified and so forth, with so many copies,
of all the Communists I knew in the U.S.
MB: The U.S. didnt
let you in?
EC: No. But my mother
did not have the surgery. She came to live with us. We bought land and
built a little house with help from the Secretary of Education. We were
very happy there.
MB: You have said
that living in Mexico gave you a perspective that was important to you.
EC: I can look at
the States from a distance. For example, we were at a birthday party,
and a man said about Afghanistan, Just drop the bomb on those people.
David had such an expression on his face that the man said, Whats
the matter? You dont agree. These are people who invited us
to their house. David said, We dont go to war in Mexico, we
dont make wars. We dont have this kind of problem. The
U.S. is like a giant for Mexicans. Its like a giant that is going
to make everybody in the world live like they live here. And nobody wants
to. They want to live like they want to live. People in the States are
getting all this
wrong information from the television, radio, and newspapers. You come
here to New York and you see everybodys got a flag out. I was thinking
about Mark Twain saying, Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.
You get in a taxi and there are seven flags in the taxi, pasted on the
windows. Its like, if you dont hang a flag out, youre
not a patriot. For me, its awful. The management here in this building
sent everybody a letter asking us to keep an eye out for anybody whos
doing anything strange, even our neighbors, so they can report it to the
been making art for 60 years. What has changed the most, socially and
artistically, in this time?
EC: For me, I would
say that Im exhibiting differently, in galleries and museums. When
I started out, I was exhibiting anywhere they invited mein churches,
in university classrooms, and in community centers. I still do that. When
people ask me, if I have material Ill exhibit there. Im dependent
on my sons a lot since my husband died. I feel that Im not as creative
as I was. I have a harder time working, developing an idea. It was more
spontaneous when I was younger. Im an American citizen now. I have
They sent me a letter from the embassy in Mexico City. Around March 2002.
They said, You have never lost your citizenship. You can now have
dual citizenship. You should come over and get a passport. So I
went and got my passport.
MB: Is it possible
to talk about the differences between the way people thought about art
in the 30s and 40s and the way they think about it now?
EC: I cant
say about the United States; I dont know enough. I still believe
in people doing what they want to do. I think that the creation of art
has a relation to society. In Mexico there was a period when they were
developing the country after the revolution of 1910 that went on and on
and on. When I first went to Mexico, the painters and sculptors and everybody
were all enthusiastically painting about Mexico and for the people of
Mexico. All of that has changed now. What the artists are doing now is
whats going on in the rest of the world. Theyre repeating
things they see in Paris and in New York. It doesnt have much relation
to Mexican people.
MB: Do you think
that the issues of race, class, and gender that have been so burning for
you all your life are still as urgent? Do you think some of these issues
have been resolved, or that theyre still there, more invisible,
and people dont pay attention the same way?
EC: I think theyre
still there, but theyve changed. I think that racism has changed
because black people can vote in the South. The Civil Rights movement
changed a lot of things for black people, but it didnt change a
lot of other things. Like the ghettos, where people are still poor and
ignorant. And I think that unfortunately many black people who are important
in the life of the United States are committed to the show that we are
MB: Do you think
art still speaks to too elite an audience?
EC: On the whole,
yes. The period of the WPA was completely different. It seems to me that
every artist now wants to present something new that hasnt been
done before. Whether its the material or whether its like
that big exhibition that the mayor didnt like at the Brooklyn Museum.
And you feel that you and the other artists in the Taller did not want
to make something new that was different than what artists had done before?
EC: They were thinking
of the best way to reach the people who came to us for help. Peasants
cheated by middle men, miners on strike and marching to Mexico City from
the north, people suffering in other parts of the world, and so on. Im
not thinking about doing things new and different. Im thinking about
creating art for my people.
MB: You didnt
think about doing things new and different back then?
EC: I have always
thought that new and different
is a product of creativity and not the objective. Art is communication.
MB: Do you feel
its too individualistic now?
EC: Yes. I think
its egocentric. Its like a competition: who can be the most
or the first and be rich and famous.
is a critic living in New York. He is currently working on a biography