Digging Deeper: Elizabeth Catlett and the Beauty of Freedom

Her work was something special. Elizabeth Catlett’s quiet strength and her gifts were a bridge to the whirlwinds of a century ago. Never commercial or chasing popularity, her works of art always stood center stage, as pillars of sturdy comfort against the ugly physical scars of injustice and fear. Her works of wood and stone advanced the steps of progress.

The US government’s treatment of this artist and teacher marked our national ugliness, revealed our desperate shortcomings and our errant ways, our use of power as blame. She became a Mexican citizen in the 1950s and the State Department proceeded to declare her an undesirable alien. One critic called her work clichéd, but she was an icon. She died on April 2, in Cuernavaca, Mexico (west of Mexico City) at 96 years of age. She had been married to a Mexican artist  for 54 years when he died. She had three sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The hands and heart and mind of Elizabeth Catlett rose from the African-American generation after Reconstruction, a generation that included early college graduates like her mother and father (her father had taught at Booker T. Washington’s legendary Tuskegee Institute). This generation guided the passage of Negro life in turn-of-the-century neighborhoods in cities that held a great variety of jobs but few opportunities.

Boston, New York, Atlanta, Charleston, Washington, DC and hundreds of communities formed neighborhoods built more on intent and meaning, places where memories became greater capital than money.

Another child of that generation, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, described it in her poem Kitchenette Building about Chicago in the 1930s and 40s:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

As a child living with her grandmother, Elizabeth Catlett listened to her tell the stories of slavery from her teen years in North Carolina. Hers (Elizabeth’s) became a generation who quietly shouldered the burdens of race, especially in education and art, finding ways to inspire students and a community despite closed doors. Continue reading Digging Deeper: Elizabeth Catlett and the Beauty of Freedom