Elizabeth Catlett at CFAC: An Interview

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 10/01/09More articles
("Power and Pride," a retrospective of printmaker, sculptor and painter Elizabeth Catlett, is on view at Community Folk Art Center through December 12.)

From the moment I set eyes on it, I thought the large lithograph entitled simply “Celie” was based on Alice Walker’s novel, “The Color Purple.” Made in 1986, the image depicts in profile silhouette a woman reading a handful of letters, with a halo of light behind her head. Traditionally visual art employs this halo image for sacred figures. Instead, Catlett – who says she wishes to be remembered most for her work with Black women – uses it in her depiction of Walker’s much-loved character Celie, who keeps unwavering faith with her own sister over years of silence and separation, a choice of image that expands what we hold as sacred and where we find it. In town recently for the opening of “Power and Pride,” an extensive retrospective of her work, Elizabeth Catlett said that, yes, she’d been commissioned to make this lithograph, meant for a poster to advertize the novel’s screen adaptation.

“They didn’t use it,” she added. “They used a Gordon Parks photograph instead. But I didn’t feel so bad once I saw the movie.”

On view since September 12 at the Community Folk Art Center on East Genesee St. in Syracuse, “Power and Pride” brings a treasure trove of Catlett’s work to Central New York – 73 pieces in all, 62 two-dimensional (leaning heavily to lithographs) and 11 sculptures. Printmaker, painter and sculptor, at 94 the still-working Catlett is arguably the foremost living African American visual artist. After a whirlwind of study and teaching and work in the early 1940s, she went to Mexico in 1946, settled there after marrying the artist Francisco Mora and took Mexican citizenship in 1962. But Catlett has also remained a vital part of this country’s art community and she achieved a bi-cultural identification with Mexican muralists and printmakers, and that nation’s indigenous peoples’ struggles, that has sometimes been vastly overlooked, especially here in the States. In acknowledgment of that – and in hopes of drawing the Central New York Latino community as part of the audience – CFAC mounted “Power and Pride” as a bilingual exhibition. The title (“El Poder y El Orgullo”), wall texts and catalogue are all printed in both English and Spanish.

“Power and Pride” was organized through the Stella Jones Gallery of New Orleans (the same Stella Jones, by the way, featured in this month’s “O Magazine” for organizing Sister Street, the artists’ friendship bracelet project between women who survived Hurricane Katrina and women who survived the genocide in Rwanda). But CFAC’s curator Gina Stankivitz hung the show, supervised the intern, did the research and wrote the texts. What you see at CFAC is not only the work of a legend but the difference a really fine and discerning curator can make in such things as the sequence in which images are presented, how images that echo one another across decades are sometimes placed side by side, and the breadth of Catlett’s mastery across styles and techniques of print-making. Supporting material includes an indispensible time-line of Catlett’s career on the main foyer wall. One enters the main gallery and at once you face the iconic “Sharecropper” print and then to the right see Catlett’s prints of the Panthers and Malcolm X.

Opening weekend featured Catlett’s own appearance at a crowded Friday evening reception on September 18th – she was presented with a stone sculpture of a mother and child by Onondaga Nation’s Tom Hough and an extraordinarily gracious appreciation by the artist Carrie Mae Weems – and then a screening the next afternoon of “Betty y Pancho,” the 1998 documentary about Catlett and Mora made by their filmmaker son, Juan Mora Catlett, who accompanied his mother to Syracuse and presented the screening.

The Saturday morning after the opening reception, Catlett and Juan Mora Catlett and I talked over a late breakfast at the Genesee Grand Hotel. Syracuse is the farthest north – in the States – that Catlett has ever traveled, and she said that part of her interest in coming here was her thought that this city might have been active in the 19th century Abolitionist Underground Railroad network. Friday had been a late night for her – there was a small dinner after the gallery reception – and she would leave the next day, so she had neither time nor energy for any trips to actual Central New York Underground Railroad sites.

“I stopped in New York, and I’ll stop going back and see my doctor,” said Catlett, who also maintains an apartment in New York City, about the long trip from her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. “That was one thing. And I thought it would be interesting here. As soon as I came in, I thought, I bet this was part of the Underground Railroad.”

Catlett said she’d seen a large house as she rode into the city here that reminded her of one that she’d used for a model for a relief sculpture for the Kellogg factory in Battle Creek, Michigan.

“They had a contest to do the monument for the Underground Railroad,” she explained. “And I wanted to do a relief of a house, with a slave hiding in the attic or in the basement and two people coming in on one side, slaves, and coming out the other side, well-dressed and on their way. They accepted another one but I liked mine better. But it interested me greatly and I thought it would be interesting to come here.”

Catlett added that right now she is reading a book about the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, who exposed the extent of lynching that persisted in the U.S. many years after Emancipation.

“And it was interesting for me that Black leaders in her time didn’t accept her. At the beginning of the book, it tells you that the women’s organizations and Dr. Dubois and other people never accepted her. Or they never dealt with her or they ignored her completely.”

In the film “Betty y Pancho” and in previous interviews, Catlett has spoken about her pivotal experience while she was teaching at New Orleans’ Dillard University in the early 1940s, when she arranged to take her students to see a landmark touring Picasso exhibition at the Delgado Museum. Not one of these students had ever been to a museum. She returned to that incident as we spoke.

“I had seen it in Chicago when I was at Iowa,” she recounted (Catlett studied with Grant Wood and received the first Master of Fine Arts degree ever awarded from the University of Iowa in 1940). “They made of Picasso a pilgrimage, a special voyage for graduate students on the train to see this exhibition, this retrospective. And it came to the museum in New Orleans and my people weren’t allowed in the museum. Well, not the museum but in the park where the museum was located. A professor from Tulane helped me take them in on a Monday when the park was closed. It was wonderful. Their reactions to Picasso. I mean, I didn’t know this prejudice against denying culture to people. I taught history of art. And this big show of Picasso’s came and they can’t see it?”

From 1958 until her retirement in 1975, Catlett taught at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where she was the first woman professor of sculpture and headed the sculpture department. Although not a lucrative position – later she discussed having to take a job teaching English as well – this placed her in the oldest art school in the Americas and, she says, “a very good one.” But in 1958 Catlett was also arrested. This incident eventually led her to take Mexican citizenship in 1962 (she now holds dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship, which she was invited to take up after her husband’s death in 2002). The 1950s in the U.S. saw the rise of McCarthyism and the anti-Communist “Red Scare” investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which led to the black-listing of many artists and intellectuals. A number of these moved to Mexico during these years – Catlett calls them “refugees” from McCarthyism – where some parts of that government had similar fears. Catlett later travelled to Cuba with a delegation of Mexican women, after which the U.S. government banned her from travel back to the States for a period. “Betty y Pancho” does not cover these skirmishes, but she spoke about it at the Genesee Grand at some length and in vivid detail. The railroad strike she speaks of involved hundreds of arrests.

“I didn’t have anything to do with McCarthyism,” she began. “I was married and had children. But the railroad workers were on strike and my husband had been doing their magazine cover, which was our connection. So one Friday night my husband went to a party and I didn’t go because one of my kids had a fever. I was telling him how to get there. I thought they were watching television but the oldest one was listening. And somebody knocked at the door. I opened it and it was dark outside. There was no light in the landing or the staircase. There was a very dark man smelling like tequila and I thought it was a tourist because they would come to my house. He said, ‘We’re from Governacion – the Department of the Interior - and we want to see your papers.’ I said, ‘I have to get them.’ I went to shut the door and he had his foot in the door. I said, ‘Would you take your foot out of the door?’ And he said, ‘You’re coming with us,’ and he threw me around and put his arm on my neck, like this, and then the lights came on. There were three other men outside. They took me down the steps. My feet weren’t even on the floor. Luckily I had a sweater on.

“My older son who was about 9 or 10 was standing by my side and he said, ‘Leave my mother alone,’ and they knocked him down. He had red pajamas. As I was going down the steps I said, ‘Call …’ but then decided not to mention anybody. We didn’t have a phone, but he went downstairs and woke up the people in the store. They let him in to use their phone. He called Pablo Higgins, an artist that we knew, and told Pablo where my husband was.

“They were driving around the city,” Catlett continued. “They said, ‘We’re gonna put you out of the city – we’re gonna deport you.’ I said, ‘You can’t – I have Mexican children.’ They said, ‘We can deport you and your children.’ So I knew it was from the State Department of Mexico. Finally they took me to a house where they detain foreigners. They had a list and they were all refugees from the States. Two of them had been checked off and I was the third one. The first one was a man who was dressing to go close a play he had at the Fine Arts Palace. And the second one was taking care of his children because his wife was in Cuernavaca. They just took them both.

“It was one of those Mexican houses with a big garden in the middle and rooms all around. There was a German woman with dyed hair, sitting on her bed in black rayon panties and brassiere, and her legs crossed. The other two were Cuban women. I found a book in English – Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World” – that I had to read. The German woman said that someone had stolen her papers. She’d come from the States. So Sunday, visitors came. It was a room with no windows. We had the door open and I saw a woman I knew. She was the wife of one of the refugees, a film director. Then I knew he was in there too. Oh! When we woke up the two Cubans told me I had to scrub the floor. I said, ‘Why?’ And they said, ‘Well, you have never scrubbed it.’ And I thought that was a good reason.”

She laughed and went on, “So the German woman said, in German, ‘In Germany a Black woman would be scrubbing my floor.’ They asked, ‘What did she say? What did she say?’ And I said, ‘She said it was too bad I had to scrub the floor.’ The next interesting thing was, I was lying on my bed on Monday, reading my book. And I heard this mumbling behind me. One was telling the other one’s fortune. So I said, ‘Tell mine’ and one said, ‘You have to cross my palm with silver.’ So I had fifty pesos – it looks like silver. She told me to shuffle the cards and cut them and make a wish. I wished to get out of there. She said, ‘You’ll have an interview with a dark man.’ And that I would get some unexpected money.

“Then somebody knocked on the door then and said, ‘Elizabeth, come out with all your junk.’ So I went out and they took me to Governacion, where I had an interview with the dark man that had put his arm around my neck. I didn’t think about it at the time. I went home on the bus – I didn’t have any money for a taxi. The woman who worked for me was ironing and the kids were in bed but they were very happy to get up and welcome me home. My husband came with a friend and we had some tequila. The Secretary of Education had got me out. The next day I took some books back to the American library. I was coming out and the man who worked in the gallery went by on a bicycle and he said, ‘What are you doing out? I thought you were in jail. Go by the gallery – there’s some money there for you.’

Catlett laughed, “So I always wondered, what was the rest of my fortune?”

In 1975 Catlett retired from teaching at the University. She has elsewhere offered a combination of reasons, among them Mexico City’s increasing smog and her worsening arthritis, but primarily a shift in the faculty.

“They brought in some new teachers and they changed the program,” she said at the Genesee Grand. “The teachers weren’t artists. They were supposed to be ‘educators.’ I was teaching sculpture – I had developed quite a few sculptors. They sent me the whole freshman class, to find out about working with wood. They had to make a wooden toy, a wooden sculpture – they told me that they had to make four things out of wood. So I gave them a lecture on different kinds of wood and showed them what they were and which ones had possibilities and so on. But they went to the carpenters’ shop and had all those things made! So I retired.”

I asked Catlett if she had taken any private students since that time.

“No,” she said simply. “I decided to do my own work. I had worked in the studio with the students. At that time to go in the university as a professor you had to win a contest of all the aspirants. So I went and took two sculptures. And they have a long table that the professors are around and I had told them that I had worked with Ossip Zadkine in New York. Not as a student but I really helped him some. And I learned some of his methods. But it’s funny, I’ve never used them, except the square – he used geometric forms. And I had a Master of Fine Arts from Iowa, which nobody else had. I got to be head of the sculpture department, over eight sculptors. One of them was a friend. And the rest sent a letter to the director – I had given a lecture on African Sculpture – saying we were only going to have a foreigner and a woman, and we were only going to have Black sculpture. Things like that. So I resigned and told them to elect somebody. They were all sworn enemies, so they elected me.”

The previous night I had noticed Catlett and her son going through the CFAC exhibition, making a list. Many of Catlett’s works from her early years, before she moved to Mexico, are missing, and she explained that there are some from the years since that she doesn’t have either.

“There are things that I sold a whole edition of, because we didn’t have any money. But I didn’t realize I was selling the whole edition sometimes. I have a list of what Stella [Jones] has of mine, but she was telling me that this exhibition was from collectors – so I thought, she’s the collector!” Catlett laughed. “They’re all from her gallery. I hadn’t realized she had as much work of mine. She probably has some more. Some of it I have – more recent – but I suddenly realized that before I die, I should at least get some of my work together.”

How does Catlett want to be remembered as an artist?

“I want to be remembered for my work with Black women,” she answered quickly. “Everybody ignores them, or they make them look like whores. We had a school, George Washington Carver School – in Harlem? – that I helped found. I taught sculpture and how to make a dress. The one I liked best was how to make a dress. Because these women wore black, brown, dark blue. I said, ‘Let’s have some color. You don’t look nice in these colors.’ I said, ‘You know, you don’t have to spend a lot of money.’ So we brought in some cloth of different colors and they had a fashion show. We had one sewing machine, which was mine. And they raised the money in the fashion show to have another sewing machine. I showed them how to use a pattern, and they really needed to baste and stitch and so forth, and to measure themselves to adjust the pattern. One woman had a turquoise blue velveteen dress – the secretary knew how to make hats so she taught them how to make hats – and a hat to match. Oh, it was really something. But so proud! I learned a lot from them. About problems they had. Most of them were domestic workers. That’s why we opened the school, to bring some culture to Harlem. We had people come to speak. It was during the war and wee had a class on how to spend a dollar. I said, ‘We should have a class in how to get it.’ That’s what I would like to be remembered for.”

Catlett, who is extremely careful to conserve her strength, is still working now, on a large sculpture to go in the Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans and on plans for other sculpture.

“I’m working on a monument, ten feet, of Mahalia Jackson,” she said. “I did the sculpture of Louis Armstrong some years ago. Now they want one of Mahalia. I saw a picture of her with a breeze blowing her skirt, so that’s the way I’m doing it. From the waist down she has a lot of movement in the front and the back. Then I can put a line down the middle of her back – that’s something I learned from Zadkine – like a V-shape? Swan has some of my old work – Swan Gallery. A hundred thousand, two hundred and fifty thousand. I was talking to the director and I said, ‘Why don’t I get any of that money?’ He said, ‘Do you have any old sculptures? Or prints?’ I said, ‘Yes – I have a Sharecropper. He said, ‘Let me have them.’ So I went home and I thought, I don’t have any old sculptures but I have an old plaster that I can make a bronze from.”

She laughed. “Which I’m going to do when I get time.”

Catlett’s son suggested that she speak further about being a woman and artist who had to raise children at the same time she was working, a subject he explores in some depth in his film. She has three sons, of which he is the middle child. Her oldest son, Francisco Jr., is a composer and jazz musician, and the youngest, David, is a painter and her studio assistant in Cuernavaca.

“I remember doing a wood carving in the kitchen on the kitchen table at night,” she began. “I think I had one child and I was pregnant with another one. We had gotten an apartment that we had to have a fight over because it was a frozen rent – rent control – at 70 pesos a month, which was nothing. The manager had doubled the rent and my husband signed it. So I said, ‘I came from Harlem where you have to fight the landlord.’ We didn’t pay too much rent. I gave it to the man that takes care of the building – the caretaker – and two minutes later the manager was there sitting in my kitchen. My husband’s idea was, it’s a very low rent anyhow. I said, ‘Yes but it’s frozen at 70 pesos and you’re paying 140 for two months now.’ So he was against doing it – paying the real amount – but I was doing it. Then the manager said, ‘Well, we’re not going to accept it. You’ll find yourself out in the street.’ Pancho said, ‘Well, you try it.’ He got very angry. So I said, ‘I want to get a job,’ so he said, ‘Get a job.’ I looked in the paper and somebody was wanting an English teacher, so I got a job right away. I taught English to the director of the National Bank and the Secretary of Economics. Then I could pay somebody to do the housework – that’s how I managed.”

“Oh, and I taught, that was the other thing,” she added. “And I did sculpture.”

“Power and Pride: An Elizabeth Catlett Retrospective/El Poder y El Orgullo: Una Exhibición Retrospectiva de Elizabeth Catlett” is on view through December 12 at the Community Folk Art Gallery, 805 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, New York 13210, 315.442.2230, communityfolkartcenter.org, cfac@syr.edu. Gallery hours: Tuesday – Friday 10:00 – 5:00 and Saturday 11:00 – 5:00.

A number of books about Catlett exist, though that by her former student, the artist-writer Samella Lewis, is out of print and prohibitively expensive on-line. Catlett herself recommended Melanie Anne Herzog’s “Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico” (2000), one of several titles by Herzog on Catlett, readily available and affordable online and, as they say, eminently readable.

Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

TAGS: Elizabeth Catlett, Francisco Mora, Juan Catlett Mora, Community Folk Art Center
EDITION: The Eagle

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