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Art is her way around obstacles

By Jin Moon


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Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett

NEW YORK — A black woman looks ahead, with her hair wrapped in a kerchief, the wrinkles of a hard life etched around her eyes. Before her is a barbed-wire fence. Underneath, one phrase: "There are bars between me and the rest of the land."

The print, made by 85-year-old Elizabeth Catlett, trumpets a message. It's also a characterization of her life as a black female artist.

In an age in which diversity and affirmative action are universally discussed, Catlett looks back to a lifetime of effort to overcome racial and gender obstacles.

"I'm first a woman, and then a black woman, and then an artist," said Catlett, who's been creating works of art since high school. "My work is principally for black people to show them the dignity and beauty that we have."

Catlett participated in a June 19 taping of "Speaking Freely," a new television program set to debut July 16 on New York's Metro Arts 13, an arts-oriented cable channel operated by WNET, PBS-TV in New York City. Hosted by the First Amendment Center's executive director, Kenneth Paulson, the program is a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts and American culture.

During the interview, Catlett sat quietly, her hands in constant motion in her lap, and the soft-spoken printmaker, painter and sculptor told of trials and tribulations, but nothing that could faze her tenacity to succeed.

And that single-minded dedication paid off. Now one of the most prominent African-American female artists of the 20th century, she is much honored for her work as a teacher and artist, including most recently her 1991 selection as "Artist of the Year" by the New York City Art Teachers Association.

Her awards and honory degrees stand in contrast to her younger years, when she, for example, applied to study at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. She was rejected because of the color of her skin.

"They told me they don't have any black students at Carnegie. But I didn't pay any attention. I thought I was so talented that I was going to get in — maybe I would be the first (black student)," Catlett said, chuckling.

"From then on, I've had difficulty exhibiting except in black institutions," she said. "And my work hasn't been accepted when I knew it should have been many times."

She eventually enrolled in historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and studied under drawing teacher James Porter and printmaking teacher James Lesene Wells. Then she studied with sculptor Grant Wood in Iowa.

In 1945 Catlett traveled to Mexico on a Julius Rosenwald Foundation grant. She liked what she saw, later decided to live permanently in Mexico and switched her citizenship in 1962. As a result, she was denied entrance to the United States for 10 years.

Paulson asked Catlett if she found Mexico more liberating. Mexicans were more accepting of her art than American viewers were, but she still was an outsider, she said.

"They didn't call me a 'gringa' because of the color I am," she replied, with a laugh. "But I'm still considered an American artist, even though I'm a Mexican citizen."

Because she often felt like an outsider, she usually found an artistic way to express her frustrations. When she couldn't participate in the civil rights movement after becoming a Mexican citizen, she turned to her art as a form of participation.

"I was feeling really badly that I was in Mexico and couldn't participate in the civil rights movement," Catlett said. "A lot of sculpture and prints came out of (the frustration). I didn't think I would express myself about the Civil Rights Movement in my work. I guess it was something subconscious."

She noted that art history books usually omit black artists, and women are rarely featured. She used this discouraging fact as motivation to work toward reversing the lack of black and female art in those textbooks by continuously creating and displaying her artwork.

"I try to educate people with what I'm doing. Principally, I'm concerned with black women," she said, adding that she believes black women are still excluded from job opportunities because of their race and gender.

For the future, she plans to campaign for a monument to African-American author Ralph Ellison on Riverside Drive in New York City and will continue to do woodcarvings in Mexico City.

"I think that artists that are busy live a long time, and they keep working," she said.