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The Importance of Exhibiting Elizabeth Catlett, Influential Artist & Activist

Posted on April 22, 2024 at 10:00 AM by Alisha Abner

Wood sculpture of a bust of a woman with an opening in the center showing a child sitting insideSculptor, printmaker, graphic artist, teacher, mentor, mother, and activist were all roles Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012) had in her lifetime. She is best known for politically charged, Black expressionistic sculptures and prints created in the 1960s and 70s. Her art stressed social consciousness and confronted injustices against the Black community and Mexican community where she made her home. Her life and art had an impact on her peers, as well as the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Catlett used her art to continuously challenge the stereotypes of Black family life, depicting loving mothers and fathers, and showcased the strength and importance of Black women.

THE ART OF ELIZABETH CATLETT from the Collection of Samella Lewis is currently on exhibition at the Brunnier Art Museum, but only through Friday, May 10, 2024. Curator Adrienne Gennett has emphasized the importance of exhibiting art and artists that reflect the student population at Iowa State University, as the Brunnier is an academic museum. “Catlett was a trailblazer whose art fought against the injustices of her time and life. With skill and intelligence, she spoke volumes through her prints and sculptures,” said Gennett. “Since her passing in 2012, Catlett’s importance has only grown, and her art remains timely, connecting contemporary audiences with themes that remain important today.”

To reach ISU students with the significance of this loaned exhibition, the University Museums staff reached out to faculty and teaching staff to incorporate it into their curricula. Tours have been integrated into the curriculum of several classes, tailored to each class; and art history students were sent by their professor to explore and write responses to works of art featured in the exhibition. While students are the primary audience for University Museums, as part of the land-grant mission of being an educational and cultural resource for all, Brunnier Art Museum has free admission for anyone wishing to visit. A suggested donation of $8 is appreciated by those able to contribute.

Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. in April 1915. She attended Howard University where she studied design, printmaking, and drawing after being denied a place at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) due to her race. In 1940, Catlett became the first Black woman to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. There, she learned from Grant Wood. In 1946, Catlett received a fellowship that allowed her to travel to Mexico City, where she studied painting, sculpture, and lithography. She worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular* (TGP), a group of printmakers dedicated to using their art to promote social change. Catlett settled in Mexico, marrying a fellow artist and had three children together. In the 1950s, Catlett was investigated along with the TGP for political activities associated with creating art interpreted as potentially communist. She was declared an “undesirable alien” by the U.S. government in 1962 when she became a Mexican citizen, resulting in the seizure of her U.S. citizenship (which was eventually returned to her by the U.S. government in 2002). She taught sculpture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City until retiring in 1975. From 2002 until her passing in 2012, Catlett lived in both New York City and Mexico and remained an active artist.


Print of a woman's bust, white on black, then repeated black on white with a repeated silhouette of a person in a dress with arms raised, each in a different color following the color spectrum.


Today, Catlett’s works of art are in collections at museums including: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Mexico City, Mexico; Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City, New York; and University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, plus many more.

To experience THE ART OF ELIZABETH CATLETT from the Collection of Samella Lewis, visit the Brunnier Art Museum on the second floor of the Scheman Building, 1805 Center Drive, Ames, Iowa, by Friday, May 10, 2024. The Brunnier is open Tuesday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., also Saturday and Sunday, 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. Admission and parking are free.

The Art of Elizabeth Catlett: from the Collection of Samella Lewis was organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, CA. The exhibition was made possible by the generosity of University Museum donors Amy Namowitz Worthen, Stewart Burger, Renate Dellmann, Janelle and George McClain, and University Museums Membership.

*English translation: People’s Graphic Arts Workshop

Maternity, 1971
Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915 – 2012)
From the collection of Samella Lewis

There is a Woman in Every Color, 1975
Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915 – 2012)
Mixed media
Edition 32/33
From the collection of Samella Lewis

Categories: Artists

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