Harlem Renaissance Artist Catlett Dies At 96

Sculptor Elizabeth Catlett was one of the most important African-American artists of the 20th century and one of the last living links to the Harlem Renaissance. She died Monday at the age of 96.

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And we remember now an African-American artist whose sculptures helped define the modernist style while offering pointed commentary on divisive issues like race. Elizabeth Catlett was 96 when she died. NPR's Allison Keyes has this story.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Strength and power shout from the raised fist of the brown, sculpted female figure in Elizabeth Catlett's 1968 piece "Homage To My Young Black Sisters." Haunting, Afro-centric eyes gaze compellingly from many of her creations. You can see them in her 1939 sculpture "Mother and Child," and in her 2003 seated figure, a bronze of a woman, head tilted skyward as if to look at the sun.

ISOLDE BRIELMAIER: You can really see life and history unfold in her work.

KEYES: Isolde Brielmaier curated an exhibition of Catlett's work last year at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. It was called "Stargazers," after a striking, 2007 Catlett sculpture.

BRIELMAIER: It was sort of inspired, for Elizabeth, after Harriet Tubman.

KEYES: The black, marble, reclining woman somehow exudes the same power as the raised fists in some of Catlett's other works. Brielmaier thinks of the sculpture as looking toward the future.

BRIELMAIER: There's something about this beautiful, kind of languid female form that's sort of firmly and boldly grounded; gazing up at the stars, gazing up at the universe.

FRANCISO 'MORA' CATLETT: The art form makes you feel something.

KEYES: Catlett's oldest son, Franciso "Mora" Catlett.

MORA CATLETT: It alerts or awakens something in you; that's the important thing about it.

KEYES: Mora Catlett says when his mother was putting up an exhibition, she made sure to ask regular folk what her work made them feel.

MORA CATLETT: She was very keen in watching people's reaction on her work - because it was for people that she was working for.

KEYES: From work such as 1969's "Negro Es Bello," to her involvement in progressive education and social causes, Catlett's love, compassion and work ethic come through in her art.

MORA CATLETT: I believe it's the reason why so much of her work is so powerful.

KEYES: Though much of her early career was ignored by the mainstream art world, Catlett's work is now collected by museums all over the world. Still, the artist said it was too much when NPR told her last year that she had been described as the matriarch of modernist sculpture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH CATLETT: I'm not the matriarch. I don't know who the matriarch is. I know it's not me.

KEYES: Yet scholars and admirers alike say Elizabeth Catlett's unique vision will influence artists concerned with the social issues that affect the world, for years to come.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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