Form That Achieves Sympathy: A Conversation with Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2003. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

Citalelli, 1999. Bronze, 43.5 x 14.5 x 14.5 in. Photo: Courtesy June Kelly Gallery, NY.

Elizabeth Catlett 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 Gráfica 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, Catlett’s resistance to race, 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 Center’s 2003 Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award.

Rebozo, 1952. Bronze, 11.5 x 5.75 x 6.5 in. Photo: Manu Sassoonian Courtesy June Kelly Gallery, NY.

Michael Brenson: What made you want to be a sculptor? What explains your love for it, and the pleasure you take in making it?

Elizabeth Catlett: 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 [1938–40]. I went to get an MFA so I wouldn’t 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 [1931–35], 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 didn’t do any wood carving there.

MB: Which sculptors did you admire in the beginning? I’ve 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 didn’t 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 [1989].

MB: Did 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.

Stepping Out, 2000. Bronze, 30 x 9.5 x 8.5 in. Photo: Manu Sassoonian Courtesy
June Kelly Gallery, NY.

MB: When did you start to think about Pre-Columbian and African sculpture?

EC: African art was first—when 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.

MB: Were 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 Moore’s work, but not in Barbara Hepworth’s. Her work was more abstract.

MB: What 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.

MB: Why?

EC: The members of the Taller de Gráfica 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.

MB: Did you wind up preferring Zúñiga’s 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.

Paulina, 2001. Mahogany, 18 x 8.25 x 11.5 in. Photo: Juan Mora Catlett.

MB: You’re 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 you’re 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 Zúñiga’s 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 I’m working with the grain, and I emphasize it sometimes—maybe 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 reflection.

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 painter?

EC: More of a sculptor, but I like printmaking, too. I have to work at completely separate times with each.

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.

Homage to My Young Black Sisters, 1968. Red cedar, 68 x 12 x 12 in. Photo: Becket Logan

MB: Did you feel that the audiences for sculpture and printmaking were different or the same?

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 didn’t 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 [1940–42], 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 Picasso’s feeling about what was going on in Spain, about the Civil War. These sophomore students who’d 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.

MB: Did it lead to discussions about what art is?

EC: Oh yes. I went up with them and they’re looking at a rooster, and they’re saying, “That’s not a rooster”; I said, “Well, that’s not the way a rooster looks, that’s the way Picasso feels about a rooster. In the first place, we all know it’s not a rooster, it’s a painting.” On the bus going back, they were talking about what they liked and what they didn’t 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 that’s one of my purposes. I want to get black people into museums.

Magic Mask, 1990. Onyx, 40 x 13 x 13.5 in. Photo: Courtesy June Kelly Gallery, NY.

MB: How did you think your work would do that?

EC: Not my work; black people go when there’s 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 cartoons—tracing drawings—from the huge auto production line murals about the Ford River Rouge plant. The cartoons were rolled up in the museum’s basement. Busloads of Chicanos came to see that show, who’d 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 into museums.

MB: When you say “people”…

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 didn’t have access.

MB: How does that hope get into your approach to your work?

EC: I’m thinking of those people when I’m working. And I ask a lot of people while I’m working, like a woman who works for us, and my friends. I ask people about what I’m doing. If they say, “I don’t understand that,” I have to work on it some. I have to see what it is they don’t understand.

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 I’m doing. I’m thinking mainly about how they feel, and about form if I’m working in sculpture. I’m thinking about a form that would achieve sympathy.

Fluted Head, 1997. Bronze, 13.75 x 8.5 x 7.5 in. Photo: Manu Sassoonian, Courtesy June Kelly Gallery, NY.

MB: Clearly many people are moved by your work.

EC: Maybe it’s because I’m thinking about them when I’m 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 put in.

MB: Did you draw her first?

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 head.

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 didn’t 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.

Seated Figure, 1962. Mahogany. Photo: Jim Frank, Courtesy June Kelly Gallery, NY.

MB: It’s my understanding that very often before you reach the final version in wood or the stone, there is some kind of intermediary material, whether it’s terra cotta or something else.

EC: Sometimes. The piece I did that’s in the Metropolitan [Woman Fixing Her Hair, 1993]—the woman with her hands up on her hair—I 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 couldn’t 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 you’re 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 you’re on strike you defend the strike, that’s what you do. These students had been sanding plastic—polyester—and 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 shouldn’t be doing it anyhow when you’re 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 wasn’t 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.

MB: You’ve 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 car—one with his arm under my neck, one on each side holding onto my arms—and 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 people—even relatives who came looking for family members—anyone 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 different countries.

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. That’s 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 don’t know whether that had anything to do with it but the U.S. Embassy decided I was an undesirable foreigner. I couldn’t 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. didn’t 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, “What’s the matter? You don’t agree.” These are people who invited us to their house. David said, “We don’t go to war in Mexico, we don’t make wars. We don’t have this kind of problem.” The U.S. is like a giant for Mexicans. It’s 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 everybody’s 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. It’s like, if you don’t hang a flag out, you’re not a patriot. For me, it’s awful. The management here in this building sent everybody a letter asking us to keep an eye out for anybody who’s doing anything strange, even our neighbors, so they can report it to the police.

MB: You’ve been making art for 60 years. What has changed the most, socially and artistically, in this time?

EC: For me, I would say that I’m exhibiting differently, in galleries and museums. When I started out, I was exhibiting anywhere they invited me—in churches, in university classrooms, and in community centers. I still do that. When people ask me, if I have material I’ll exhibit there. I’m dependent on my sons a lot since my husband died. I feel that I’m not as creative as I was. I have a harder time working, developing an idea. It was more spontaneous when I was younger. I’m an American citizen now. I have dual citizenship. 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 can’t say about the United States; I don’t 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 what’s going on in the rest of the world. They’re repeating things they see in Paris and in New York. It doesn’t 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 they’re still there, more invisible, and people don’t pay attention the same way?

EC: I think they’re still there, but they’ve 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 didn’t 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 democratic.

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 hasn’t been done before. Whether it’s the material or whether it’s like that big exhibition that the mayor didn’t like at the Brooklyn Museum.

MB: “Sensation.” 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. I’m not thinking about doing things new and different. I’m thinking about creating art for my people.

MB: You didn’t 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 it’s too individualistic now?

EC: Yes. I think it’s egocentric. It’s like a competition: who can be the most or the first and be rich and famous.

Michael Brenson is a critic living in New York. He is currently working on a biography of David Smith.