features

The Works of Elizabeth Catlett Come to the Cantor Art Gallery

Stacey Kaliabakos ‘23

Features Editor

This past summer, I visited the MET in New York City a couple of times. While I was there, I gravitated to the ancient art sections of the museum, such as Greek, Roman, and Chinese art. As a Classics major, I have always been interested in those eras of history and have felt most comfortable exploring museums that possess that type of art. However, as a Holy Cross student, I am fortunate to have an art gallery on campus that has allowed me to expand my horizons, becoming more familiar with a couple of contemporary and influential artists I had, unfortunately, not heard of before.

This semester, the Cantor Art Gallery has become home to the art of Elizabeth Catlett. Catlett (1915-2012) is a noteworthy example of an African American artist in the 20th century. Born in Washington D.C. to African American educators and the granddaughter of two slaves, Catlett grew up with a unique perspective on race and injustice in the United States. 

Catlett knew early on in life that she wanted to become an artist and was willing to take the necessary steps to achieve her goal. She enrolled at Howard College and was mentored by famous artists such as James Porter and Louis Mailou Jones. It was at Howard that she began to solidify her foundational artistic skills, but she continued her educational journey at the University of Iowa, where she became the first woman to earn a Masters of Fine Arts degree in sculpture.

Photo Courtesy of Stacey Kaliabakos ’23

Although Catlett undoubtedly loved art, she also was passionate about teaching. She became a professor at Dillard University in New Orleans and worked alongside political activists in the arts at the South Side Community Arts Center in Chicago. She met Samella Lewis, PhD, at Dillard University in 1941, one of the many people whose lives were influenced by her magnanimous nature. Catlett became Dr. Lewis’ lifelong mentor and friend, and the 38 pieces featured in the Cantor Art Gallery all come from Dr. Lewis’ personal collection. 

Photo Courtesy of Stacey Kaliabakos ’23

Eventually, Catlett made her way to Harlem, New York, where she worked at the George Washinton Carver People’s School. After being awarded a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Catlett traveled to Mexico City and became fascinated with the Mexican Revolution. In fact, from that point onward, Catlett would begin her artistic career and new life in Mexico: she met her husband, fellow artist Francisco Mora, and also became a citizen in 1962. 

Catlett’s art is known as being impactful and insightful, and experiencing it in person was extremely enlightening. Her expertise is evident in every sculpture, woodcut, and lithograph. She deftly weaves her natural abilities with her passion for activism and desire to showcase injustice through various artistic mediums. Her paintings were moving and made me want to explore the works of artists like her, such as her husband and other contemporary African American activists. As the introduction at the entrance to the gallery says, “This exhibition explore[s] the nature of Elizabeth Catlett’s oeuvre and its ability to affect both individual lives and political movements. Her legacy as an artist, teacher, mentor, activist, wife, mother, grandmother, and friend are described through these works, offered as a testament to her greatness.”

I encourage you to go check out the works of Elizabeth Catlett, if you get the chance. The gallery is open on weekdays from 10AM-5PM and weekends from noon-5PM until December 7, 2021.

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