Saturday, April 14, 2012
Those Amazing Catlett Hands
Her hands. There were none like them, or at least, I never saw any that were. Elizabeth Catlett's hands were the emblem of strength. Larger than most women's, Elizabeth's hands somehow managed to be feminine and masculine all at the same time. As a sculptor working in such media as wood, marble, and other hard stone, she couldn't make the work without having the amazingly strong hands that she did. I started out as a sculptor so I know of what I speak! One of the reasons I stopped carving is because it was just too damn much work! But somehow Elizabeth managed to not only carve the majority of her masterpieces, but to create more than one a year. I had the privilege of working on one of her pieces while visiting in Cuernavaca in 2000. She was convalescing from a hip injury so Elizabeth was taking a break from sculpting. She instructed me to work on a section of this wood piece, carving out some areas in preparation for her son David to continue defining the form. Although I hadn't carved since undergraduate school (roughly 32 years!) I agreed to tackle this task! I spent the whole day working on this seemingly simple assignment and was exhausted by dinnertime. When I asked Elizabeth how she managed at her age (85 years!) to work that hard, she responded by calling me a whoozie girl! I laughed hard because she was so right. My hands were blistered, my back hurt, my arms were feeling like they were going to fall off, and all because I put in one day's work on a Catlett sculpture, something she did without batting an eye. I realized those Catlett hands were deceiving. They somehow didn't show the extent to which one had to labor to make a piece of wood become a fluid, curvaceous woman. The smoothness of those hands, the gracefulness of those long fingers, even the fact that she had beautiful nails belied the reality of a sculptor's work. I so admired her hands for their strength but envied them their beauty. I never managed to keep mine looking like anything short of a ditch digger's hands and I hadn't carved a day since 1968! Her hands were amazing and thanks to those amazing hands, the art world has some of the most incredible sculptures created by a 20th-21st century artist.