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The National Museum of African American History and Culture mourns the death of celebrated sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (April 15, 1915 – April 2, 2012).
While many associate Catlett with an earlier era, her accomplishments bring her contributions right up to the present. From her years at Howard University in Washington, D.C. -- where she excelled as a painting student under major talents including Lois Mailou Jones, Alain Locke, and James A. Porter -- to her training with Grant Wood at the University of Iowa, and her mastery of the Mexican mural tradition, her long and productive life illustrates the cross-cultural richness that has fueled the creativity of the present generation.
"With a body of work that includes sculpture, printmaking and murals, Elizabeth Catlett stands in the top echelons of modern American art. We are honored that her work and legacy are an important part of the story we will tell at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) when it opens on the national mall in 2015,” says Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director.
In the late '30s, while studying for her M.F.A. in sculpture at the University of Iowa Catlett was urged to work with the subjects she knew best. For her that meant people of color – particularly women – and it was at this point that her work began to focus on African Americans. Her piece Mother and Child, done in limestone in 1939 for her thesis, won first prize in sculpture at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940.
Her sculpture Phillis Wheatley, a bronze of 1973, was among the first works of fine art to enter the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator at NMAAHC describes Catlett this way: "She was a great American artist whose work spans two centuries. Her protean capacity as a sculptor, printmaker, mural painter and role model will be forever an inspiration to artists and art lovers alike."