Elizabeth Catlett, painter, sculptor and former Rosenwald fellow, passed away Monday in her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. in 1915 but moved around a lot as a student and artist, spending time at black universities such as Howard, Hampton and Dillard and also studying at the University of Iowa and the Art Institute of Chicago. Catlett’s large body of work cements her status as one of the great African American artists of the 20th century, and her obituaries note that she was one of the last remaining links to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. Catlett was also married to another Rosenwald fellow, artist Charles White.
One of Catlett’s best-known works, a series of linoleum-block prints called The Negro Woman, was created with the help of consecutive Rosenwald fellowships in 1946 and 1947. The abstract black and white images in this series include portraits of black women doing everyday tasks, pictures of black luminaries such as Harriet Tubman and striking images of segregation and labor organization. The images are made more powerful by their bold and matter of fact titles, such as “I have always worked hard in America” and “My right is a future of equality with other Americans.” A print from this series belonging to the Whitney Museum can be viewed online here.
It was the Rosenwald fellowship that initially brought Catlett to Mexico, where she spent the latter half of her life. According to Daniel Schulman’s essay in A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Catlett spent the first year of her fellowship thinking creatively about how to make a sophisticated artwork that would still communicate to a mass audience. At the same time, Catlett was honing her printmaking craft (which she first studied at Howard) at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a political printmaking collective in Mexico. The Rosenwald grant allowed Catlett the freedom to gradually develop The Negro Woman, which Schulman, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, called “[maybe] the most successfully realized and powerful project to have emerged from a Rosenwald Fellowship.”
Author and University of Florida professor of creative writing Harry Crews, who also passed away within the last week (March 28th) spoke of a connection to Sears in his early life. Crews grew up in rural Georgia in a household that contained only two books, the Bible and the “Consumer’s Bible,” the annual Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. As a child, he would make up stories with friends while paging through the catalogue, riffing on its idealized images.
Crews recounted this method of creative storytelling for a 2003 documentary called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (IMDb), a scene from which can be seen here. “See, when I was a boy, the Sears Roebuck catalogue […] came to everybody’s mailbox in the South,” says Crews in the documentary. “First thing that struck us was everybody in the Sears Roebuck catalogue was perfect. Wasn’t any baldheads, everybody had all the fingers that was coming to ‘em. Nobody had any open and running sores on their bodies. But everybody we knew had a finger missing or one eye put out from a staple glancing off a post. In other words, everybody in our world was maimed and mutilated whereas everybody in the Sears Roebuck world was perfect. And so we just started to tell stories about the people. We’d give them names.”
By Michael Rose