Elizabeth Catlett, whose stylish sculptures of New Orleans musical icons Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson are centerpieces of Louis Armstrong Park, died on Monday at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she had lived for six decades. Born April 15, 1915, Catlett was just days away from her 97th birthday.
Catlett is internationally known for her sculptures and prints that depict aspects of African-American life and civil rights issues. Her style reflects the social realism practiced by 20th century artists such as her one-time teacher Grant Wood and acquaintance Diego Rivera, plus the influence of pre-Columbian abstraction. Xavier University art professor Ron Bechet said that Catlett was an example to generations of New Orleans artists.
“She was a mother to all of us,” Bechet said, “showing us a way through this art thing that was straight and true.”
Catlett was born in Washington, D.C., received a bachelors degree from Howard University and a master’s degree of fine art from the University of Iowa. Her long relationship with New Orleans began in 1939, when she became head of the Dillard University art department.
Catlett famously subverted the rules of segregation, when she arranged to take her students to a Pablo Picasso exhibit at the Delgado Museum of Art (now The New Orleans Museum of Art). In a 2009 interview at NOMA, Catlett explained that though her African-American students would be allowed to enter the museum located in City Park, they were forbidden to set foot in the park. So she and a Newcomb College colleague arranged for a bus to deliver them directly to the museum grounds, thereby avoiding contact with the restricted park.
“You know,” Catlett said in her precise professorial voice, “these were second-year university students and none of them had been in an art museum before.”
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R.I.P. Elizabeth Catlett