Cantor Art Gallery at Holy Cross exhibits works by artist and Civil Rights activist Elizabeth Catlett

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Cantor Art Gallery at Holy Cross exhibits works by artist and Civil Rights activist Elizabeth Catlett
Installation view.

WORCESTER, MASS.- The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross is presenting an exhibition of artwork by the acclaimed African American artist Elizabeth Catlett during the fall semester. “The Art of Elizabeth Catlett from the Collection of Samella Lewis” will be on view through Dec. 15, 2021.

An accompanying lecture by Rebecca Van Diver, professor of art history at Vanderbilt University, will take place during opening events on Sept. 9 at 4:30 p.m. in Holy Cross' Rehm Library. A reception will follow in the gallery.

Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), a pioneering sculptor and printmaker, is widely considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Exploring themes around injustice, motherhood and the Black-American experience, Catlett’s work utilized a sleek, modern aesthetic to promote social equity and confront injustice, especially to African Americans. In her words: “I always wanted my art to service my people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential. We have to create an art for liberation and for life.” The exhibition includes the politically-charged works that Catlett created in 1960s and 70s—for which she was best known—as well as later prints and sculpture.

Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. the granddaughter of enslaved workers and child of educators. She earned her undergraduate degree from Howard University where she studied design, printmaking and drawing. She went on to study at the University of Iowa under the tutelage of Grant Wood, and became the first woman to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from that institution. At the age of 93, Carnegie Mellon University awarded Elizabeth Catlett an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, having previously denied her undergraduate application to study at the then Carnegie Tech.

In 1946, Catlett received a fellowship that allowed her to travel to Mexico City where she studied painting, sculpture and lithography. There, she worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (People's Graphic Arts Workshop), a group of printmakers dedicated to using their art to promote social change. After settling in Mexico and later becoming a Mexican citizen, she taught sculpture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City until retiring in 1975.

In 1962, the U.S. State Department banned her from returning to the United States for nearly a decade because of her political affiliations.

The 38 works in this exhibition come from the personal collection of artist, educator and author Samella Lewis, Ph.D. of Los Angeles, California. Lewis was a student of Catlett’s in the 1940s and Catlett became her mentor. The two became lifelong friends. In tribute to the lifework of Elizabeth Catlett, this exhibition—organized by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and Landau Traveling Exhibitions—was made possible through Lewis’ generosity in sharing Catlett’s work, as well as her own and that of Catlett’s husband, Mexican artist Francisco “Pancho” Mora (1922-2002).

This exhibition explores the nature of Elizabeth Catlett’s art and its ability to affect both individual lives and political movements. Her legacy as an artist, teacher, mentor, activist, wife, mother, grandmother and friend are apparent through these works.

“We are pleased to be able to present the work of Elizabeth Catlett at Cantor,” said Meredith Fluke, director of the Cantor Art Gallery. “Catlett’s work serves as a stunning reminder of the ability of art to function as an instrument of both protest and aesthetic pleasure and calls attention to some of the most important injustices of our time. I’m anticipating that the exhibition will forge deep connections across disciplines—students with varying academic and personal interests will connect with these seminal works.”

A series of noontime lectures in conjunction with the exhibition is scheduled throughout the fall semester and will be posted to the Cantor Art Gallery’s website and social media as details are confirmed.

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