RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In just in the last year, 96-year-old American artist Elizabeth Catlett has had her work featured in exhibitions from Turkey to Mexico to New York. Yet, she's still unknown to much of the general public. But NPR's Allison Keyes tells us young artists are using Catlett's technical expertise - and her insights into gender, race and class - as a jumping-off point for their own work.
ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: A man bends over a glass case looking intently at the drawings of women with powerful legs and hips, the very act of their standing imbuing them with a force like nature.
VINCENT JACKSON: Well, that's a woman right there.
KEYES: Vincent Jackson is an artist. He's walking through the Bronx Museum of the Arts exclaiming over Elizabeth Catlett's work and what he feels when he looks at the flowing lines of the figures.
JACKSON: Strength, you know, character in the black woman.
KEYES: That is one of the major themes flowing through Catlett's art, some of which was featured in the exhibition. But Jackson was stopped dead in his tracks by the 1968 Catlett sculpture Homage to My Young Black Sisters.
JACKSON: That's her again. Doggone it. That is bad. That's the one I like the best. That is nice.
KEYES: It's one of Catlett's better known - a life-sized personification in the feminine of black power. It's a brown figure of a woman standing defiantly upright, fist raised in the air. But as much as Jackson loves the sculpture...
JACKSON: Oh, I never heard of her.
KEYES: Catlett, as she said in a 2003 interview with NPR, is used to this.
ELIZABETH CATLETT: I, as an artist, a black woman artist, have been invisible in the art world for years.
KEYES: The show at the Bronx Museum was curated by Isolde Brielmaier, who says when Catlett began creating, everything artists of color did was a struggle.
ISOLDE BRIELMAIER: Catlett kind of came of age where African-Americans and women were not part of the mainstream, they were not part of the center. They were relegated to the margins and were excluded.
KEYES: Elizabeth Catlett, the grandchild of slaves, was born in 1915 in Washington, D.C. She won a scholarship to the then Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh but ended up at Howard University after Carnegie refused to accept a black woman. By 1940, Catlett had become the first African-American woman to receive a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa. There, her mentor, "American Gothic" painter Grant Wood encouraged Catlett to portray what she knew best, inspiring her to focus on black people - especially women - and their ongoing struggle for equality. Today, the 96-year-old artist says the work she's still creating in her home studio in Cuernavaca, Mexico, remains centered on women and those who are poor and disenfranchised.
CATLETT: I still believe in getting rid of discrimination.
KEYES: Catlett wound up in Mexico after accepting an invitation to work at a print making collective. She married a Mexican artist and eventually became a citizen. The U.S. government denied her a travel visa for nine years, declaring her an undesirable alien because she was a suspected communist.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. So, we're thinking that it's Egyptian, yes?
KEYES: Back at the Bronx museum, a class from P.S. 73 mingles with people walking through the exhibition. LaDawn Law is among them. She flew in from Pasadena, California for the show.
LADAWN LAW: I just see reflection of all of us in her work. You know, like the Madonna. You know, I think about my own mother and how hard she worked to raise her children.
KEYES: The show juxtaposed Catlett's work with pieces from 21 other artists, including Sanford Biggers. He contributed an oversized woodcut of an afro-pick with a clenched fist as its handle. In a panel discussion about the themes in the exhibition, Biggers called Elizabeth Catlett a trailblazer.
SANFORD BIGGERS: I think we have a lot more freedoms now because of the work Elizabeth and her colleagues did, her generation did.
XAVERIA SIMMONS: Elizabeth's work has influenced me greatly.
KEYES: Artist Xaveria Simmons had a photograph in the show called One Day and Back Then. It's a nude woman covered in black paint with a large afro and bright red lipstick.
SIMMONS: That's Xaveria looking at Elizabeth Catlett.
KEYES: Simmons says not only does she follow Catlett's focus on making work about what she knows, she's also influenced by its precision and clarity.
SIMMONS: For me, Elizabeth's craftsmanship is unparalleled. I don't know anybody whose work consistently stays so rich and rigorous over such a long period of time. I've always looked to her work for that inspiration.
KEYES: The artists on the panel said, like Catlett, they want to produce strong images that make people think differently about the historical struggles of people of color and incorporate what's happening today. Back in Mexico, Catlett is working - with assistance - and offering practical advice to artists trying to learn from her struggle and her work.
CATLETT: I hope they would learn to put in their best effort, they would learn to keep a contract on time. What else? Do a good job so they get another one. (Laughs)
KEYES: Told that she'd been described as the matriarch of modernist sculpture, Elizabeth Catlett demurred, calling it too much.
CATLETT: I'm not the matriarch. I don't know who the matriarch is. I really don't know. I know it's not me.
KEYES: Elizabeth Catlett once said she always wanted her art to service black people, quote, "to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, and to make us aware of our potential." From the level of conversation her work continues to inspire, among both artists and admirers, it seems she has more than accomplished her goal. Allison Keyes, NPR News.
MARTIN: You can see some of Elizabeth Catlett's work at our website, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.