Making amends: CMU lauds famed black artist 76 years after it denied her admittance



The last time artist Elizabeth Catlett was in Pittsburgh, she was a 16-year-old girl who wanted to study art at Carnegie Technical Institute in 1932.

The school had awarded the budding artist a scholarship and she had traveled from her hometown of Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh to pursue her passion. However, when university officials saw that she was African American -- "colored" in those days -- they denied her admittance.

Yesterday, the school, which is now called Carnegie Mellon University, attempted to rectify that wrong by awarding the 93-year-old renowned sculptor and printmaker an honorary doctorate of fine arts during its commencement program.

CMU president Jared L. Cohon lauded Ms. Catlett for her "dignity" in the face of racism and how she overcame it to achieve great success in the art world.

Described as one of the foremost artists of her generation, her work is displayed in many museums and has been bought by private collectors, including Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey.

Ms. Catlett was feted Friday with a reception and a two-day exhibition of her work at CMU's Regina Gouger Miller Gallery.

"I was here once before," she said during the reception. "It's better this time."

More than 100 art enthusiasts, including collectors from Cleveland and Washington D.C., attended the event.

The exhibition included 30 of Ms. Catlett's figurative lithographs and serigraphs and six bronze sculptures.

Her work spans much of the 20th century and reflects the social and political realities of the times. Also captured in many of her pieces is the beauty and power of African-American women and the women of Mexico, where she has lived since the 1940s. Her six-lithograph series entitled "I Am" was done in conjunction with the epic poem "For My People" by Margaret Walker, who was a roommate of Ms. Catlett's during their time at the University of Iowa.

Ms. Catlett, who was accompanied by her son, Francisco Mora Catlett, said she returned to Pittsburgh because "I thought it was an honor to receive an honorary doctorate from Carnegie."

She has 12 other honorary doctorates, including ones from the Parsons School of Design and the Pratt Institute in New York City.

"Think of the landscape for art in this city had she graduated from Carnegie Tech," said Tyra Butler, a co-chair of the event and a board member of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. "There are a lot of collectors here in Pittsburgh who have her work."

Ms. Butler is one of them. Her photograph and the photos of 10 other Pittsburghers and their Catlett pieces were part of the exhibit.

Jackie Mullins, a collector from Highland Park, said what attracted her to Ms. Catlett's work is her depiction of African Americans.

"How she represented us with so much dignity and our true likeness ... ," Ms. Mullins said. "She didn't try to fix us up, but she showed us just as we are."

June Kelly, director of the June Kelly Gallery in New York City, which represents Ms. Catlett, said her work speaks to a wide range of people.

"When you look at her pieces, you can understand them in terms of the pride, the joy, the sense of maternity," Ms. Kelly said.

While Ms. Butler said she thought Ms. Catlett's Carnegie Tech story was common knowledge, CMU didn't become aware of the slight until a university official attended another art event chaired by Ms. Butler in September, she said. In reading the biographies of some of the artists featured there, the official discovered Ms. Catlett's connection to Carnegie Tech and decided something had to be done.

When Ms. Butler learned that Ms. Catlett had accepted CMU's invitation to receive an honorary degree, she and fellow co-chairs Yvonne C. Cook, Claudette Lewis and Michael and Stephanie Jasper approached the university about hosting an exhibition.

The granddaughter of slaves, Ms. Catlett blazed many trails as an African-American female artist. She had hoped to be the first African-American student at Carnegie Tech. However, when that didn't pan out, she earned an undergraduate degree from the Howard University School of Art in 1937.

"I now believe that although we didn't have anywhere near the art faculty of Carnegie Tech, the relationship between the African-American teachers and students was more beneficial to my development," Ms. Catlett said.

Three years after graduating from Howard, Ms. Catlett saved enough money teaching high school to enter the master of fine arts program at the University of Iowa. Although she was accepted there as a student, she could not live in the dormitories. So she rented rooms with local African-American families.

Studying under the legendary Grant Wood, she became the first person to earn an MFA in sculpture from the school.

During the 1940s, Ms. Catlett spent several years teaching at Dillard University in New Orleans and was married for a brief period to artist Charles White. In 1946, she traveled to Mexico on a Julius Rosenfeld Fellowship. It was there that she met and married Francisco Mora, also an acclaimed artist. They have three sons; David, a sculptor and his mother's personal assistant; Francisco, a jazz drummer; and Juan, a filmmaker.

Another one of Ms. Catlett's career breakthroughs was becoming the first female professor of sculpture at the University of Mexico, a position she held until she retired in 1975.

Her art is part of the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Museum of Fine Art in Mexico City and the Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. However, she also spent a number of years exhibiting her work at community centers and churches. "I exhibited where they asked me to," she said.

Recently, the Swann Gallery in New York sold one of her sculptures for $290,000. But Ms. Catlett said her goal as an artist was never about personal accolades.

"I never worked to achieve. I never worked to make money. That's something that happened on the side."

Though she uses a wheelchair to get around, Ms. Catlett continues to work and has a show scheduled at the June Kelly Gallery in New York next April.

"I plan to keep on keeping on keeping on," she said. "Art is such a necessary thing in our lives."


Monica Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1660. First Published May 19, 2008 4:00 AM


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here