Painter, printmaker, and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett believed art could affect social change and that she should be an agent for that change: “I have always wanted my art to service black people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.” As an artist and an activist, Catlett highlighted the dignity and courage of motherhood, poverty, and the working class, returning again and again to the subject she understood best—African American women.

The granddaughter of enslaved people, Elizabeth Alice Catlett grew up in a middle-class home in Washington, DC, and dreamed of becoming an artist. She executed her first sculpture in high school—carving an elephant from soap—but did not return to the three-dimensional form until graduate school. Catlett matriculated at Howard University, having been denied admittance to her first choice, the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, because of the color of her skin. At Howard, Catlett studied painting with several notable artists including James Herring, Loïs Mailou Jones, James Porter, and James Lesesne Wells. Following her graduation in 1935, she taught art in the Durham, North Carolina, public school system for two years. While she enjoyed teaching, her classroom responsibilities left little time for her own creativity.

In hopes of better balancing her artistic aspirations with the need for a steady income, Catlett enrolled in graduate school at the University of Iowa, where Regionalist painter Grant Wood was one of her instructors. When Catlett soon shifted her academic emphasis to sculpture, Wood continued to serve as a mentor and encouraged her to focus on “what she knew.” For Catlett, this meant images of African American women and children, which she channeled in her 1939 thesis project, a carved limestone sculpture of a mother and baby, which was awarded the first prize in sculpture at the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago. She became the first black woman to earn a master of fine arts degree from the university.

Catlett joined the faculty of Dillard University in New Orleans in the fall of 1940 and lobbied for her students’ opportunities in the segregated city. One pupil, Samella Lewis, recounted an episode when Catlett wanted to visit a Picasso exhibition at the Isaac Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art), which was located in the center of a segregated park. Rather than be deterred by Jim Crow laws, she transported her class by bus to the museum’s front steps on a day when the institution was closed to white members.

Catlett spent the summer between her first and second years at Dillard in Chicago, staying with her good friend and fellow artist Margaret Burroughs. She took a course in ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago, studied lithography at the South Side Community Art Center, and became immersed in the city’s politically active art circles. Through Burroughs, Catlett met another promising artist, Charles White, whom she married just a few months later in December 1941. When a dispute about faculty salaries arose at Dillard the following year, she resigned and relocated with her husband to New York. There, Catlett took courses in lithography at the Art Students League and studied with Ossip Zadkine, a Russian émigré who inspired her to experiment with abstraction, encouragement that led to her prolonged exploration of the feminine form in a forceful, fluid modernist mode. In the mid-1940s, Catlett taught at the progressive George Washington Carver School, where her students—primarily working class black men and women—had a profound impact on her values and artistic output, as borne out in her later linocut series titled “I Am the Negro Woman” (which Catlett later renamed “I Am the Black Woman”). Catlett also served on the faculty of Hampton Institute in Virginia where she influenced John Biggers.

For most of their marriage, White’s achievements overshadowed Catlett’s despite the similarity of their styles and subject matter. Finally, in 1945, Catlett received recognition for her work through a Julius Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship which funded the couple’s travel to Mexico to study at the famed Taller de Gráfica Popular. While at this graphic artists’ collective and workshop, Catlett began working with linoleum cut, a printmaking technique that was efficient and affordable. As Catlett’s career flourished, her marriage dissolved, prompting her to leave Mexico after several months to initiate divorce proceedings. By 1947, she had returned to Mexico to establish permanent residency. Catlett met printmaker and muralist Francisco Mora when she was associated with the Taller; they later married and had three sons. In 1958, Catlett became the first female professor of sculpture and head of the art department of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City, an appointment she held until her retirement in 1975.

Although Catlett never joined the Communist party, her political activism and association with several known party members caused the United States State Department to label her as an “undesirable alien.” In response, Catlett renounced her American citizenship in 1962 and became a citizen of Mexico. In her adopted country, Catlett continued to champion women and fight for social justice. For nearly a decade, the United States denied Catlett a travel visa, until she was permitted to attend an exhibition of her work at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1971; her American citizenship was reinstated in 2002.

Catlett’s international success as a socially conscious artist and tireless advocate earned her numerous recognitions and awards, including the Women's Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award in 1981, a Legends and Legacy award from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005, and an NAACP Key of Life award in 2009; in 2008, Carnegie Mellon University presented her with an honorary doctorate. Elizabeth Catlett’s work is held in the collections of every major American museum.