Elizabeth Catlett, an American sculptor who lived and worked in Mexico for most of her career, died Monday at age 96. Catlett was politically and artistically active during the civil rights movement and gave up her American citizenship to live in Mexico in the 1950s. Her work is internationally collected and she continued to create and show her work in the last years of her life.
Catlett was born April 15, 1915 in Washington, and began her career as a teacher after graduating cum laude from Howard University in 1935. Later she received an M.F.A from the University of Iowa where she went to study with Grant Woods. Later, she studied with the Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine in New York. Zadkine’s influence is considered to have initiated a shift in her work towards greater abstraction. In 1946 Catlett traveled to Mexico on a fellowship where she married Francisco Mora and began working with muralists and graphic artists in Mexico city. As her career developed, she continued to teach in Mexico City, eventually retiring to Cuernavaca in 1975.
Her work consists largely of abstracted sculptural depictions of African American women deeply inspired by the work of Henry Moore and Diego Rivera. Catlett received a lifetime achievement award from the International Sculpture Center in 2003 and had several retrospectives and one-woman shows later in her life. Though her work is often praised for its aesthetic beauty and technical skill, Catlett was always concerned with her work as the medium for a social message.