Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Elizabeth Catlett: a treasured friend, a remarkable artist

As I was weepily reminiscing with someone about Elizabeth Catlett, she asked me when did I meet Elizabeth Catlett and I told her that I first met her on the pages of James Porter's 1943 book Modern Negro Art. My parents gave me this groundbreaking book when I was 8 years old and had announced my intention to be a sculptor when I grew up. They wanted me to know that there were indeed Black women who were sculptors so that I would know my aspiration was realizable. I thumbed through my first art book with intense interest and found myself transfixed on Elizabeth's marble "Negro Mother and Child". Since I had recently been introduced to carving by my instructor at Fleischer Memorial Art School, I immediately grativated to this magnificent work. My young mind didn't appreciate all of the technical aspects of this piece but I can remember thinking what emotion the artist captured both in the pose and the faces of her subjects. Two years later, my parents gifted me with Cedric Dover's American Negro Art and once again I found Elizabeth's work mesmerizing. This new "Mother and Child" had a different, albeit equally powerful affect on me. The mother had her feet firmly planted on the earth, almost in defiance, with the child nestled in her lap but appearing just at firmly self-aware as its mother. Whereas the "Negro Mother and Child" baby hid itself in its mother's torso, "Mother and Child"'s baby faces us with only its head tilted inwards. Both figures seemed very strong to my ten year-old mind, a quality I rather liked. It helped immensely that Elizabeth Catlett's politics matched that of my parents. Like her, they were "blacklisted", making their lives a living hell for the better part of the late forties into the mid-fifties. As I think back on the intentionality with which my parents introduced us to artists, I now am clear that they chose Elizabeth Catlett over, say, a Selma Burke, because they agreed with her political stances as much as they did her aesthetic choices. They were making it clear to me from the start that one could be political and still be a damn good artist! The art in our house reflected the conviction my parents had regarding us kids seeing ourselves reflected on our walls so the offset prints of W.E.B. Dubois or the beautifully rendered elder Black woman by Charles White made us know that Black people were worthy subjects for works of art, as worthy as the white subjects we encountered on our frequent visits to the Philadelphia Art Museum. Fast forward to 1971 and my tenure in graduate school at University of Wisconsin Madison. As horrific as that experience was (no Black art faculty, just about as many students, and no love, trust me, no love!) I had several wonderful things happen in that cold, cold town. The first was that I elected to take a course in African American Art History from an instructor who wasn't much older than me. That began a lifelong friendship with the now fully tenured professor, Dr. Freida High Tesfagiorgious (she was just Freida High then!) I took this course because I simply wanted to have an opportunity to converse about artists I knew with other people who were interested. I needed to know that I wasn't crazy for wanting to seek inspiration for my work from within my own cultural experience and I thought a class on the history of my predeceesors would affirm my ideas. It turned out that Freida needed me in the class as much as I needed the class since she was newly aware of this history and had not done that much in-depth research on the topic. In a sense, she was learning as the class learned! But it was a perfect class for me because we always had discussions rather than lectures, and lord knows I love to discuss! As a part of the class requirement, we had to attend the National Conference of Artists which proved to be the second wonderful thing that happened to me while a graduate student for it was at the DC conference that I met my idol, later to become my mentor, Elizabeth Catlett. I can remember like it was yesterday the moment I found out that Elizabeth was going to attend this conference and how excited I was at the prospect of seeing her. She was to receive an award as one of the elders who helped shape the organization. The banquet planned for the award ceremony was much too expensive for any of us students so we knew we'd have to be satisfied with possibly catching a glimpse of the notables going into the banquet hall. Never one for star-gazing, I decided I'd just sit outside with some of the other "rebel artists" and debate the merits of awards and the capitalist structure that mandated favoring one artist over another. So there I was engrossed in conversation with who, I don't even remember, when I heard someone say "so what's going on with you young people?" I looked up and there she was! Elizabeth Catlett had decided it was more important for her to spend some of her limited time stateside checking out the next generation of Black artists. She, like us, didn't place a lot of stock in awards, especially those swapped between friends. I am pretty sure I let out a small gasp when I realized I was sitting next to my sho nuff idol but she didn't seem to notice. I asked her if she'd tell us about her work and I swear to God she said "forget about my work, tell me about yours". So I did. We discussed my struggle to maintain my identity in a school that had no interest in it. She reassured me that I'd make it through grad school with my identity intact as long as I didn't allow it to be compromised. Her warning stuck with me and indeed I did get through the experience with somce scars but a stronger sense of commitment to my aesthetic. As time passed, I had numerous visits with my idol and indeed we became friends. My visits to her residences, both in Mexico and New York were always productive. Her advice held me in good stead as a Black woman navigating the typically hostile art world sea, and her common sense suggestions about
being an artist mother were as helpful as her art critiques. Elizabeth Catlett was one of the most practical women I've ever met and therefore having a conversation with her never left you confused. Whether I was asking how I could possibly be a mother and an artist only to have her respond "what are you crazy? Of course you can. You just have to put the work on hold for a little while!" or wondering about marrying (her answer: marry a feminist and you'll be ok!) Elizabeth always shot straight with me. I will sorely miss this incredibly dynamic woman whose life epitomized the ideal Black woman artist for me. I shudder to think what my life would be like had I not had her in it, helping me understand how possible it is to be an artist/activist without either role overshadowing the other. Elizabeth Catlett-Mora changed lives; I know she changed mine.

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