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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Artist Elizabeth Catlett began creating powerful images of strong African-Americans before World War II when the art world had little interest in such portrayals. Yet Catlett held to her convictions, and today her etchings and sculptures are in major museums around the world. Elizabeth Catlett died in her sleep on Monday at the age of 96. NPR's Allison Keyes has this appreciation.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Elizabeth Catlett's art strikes a visceral chord in people who see it, whether they're casual observers or fellow artists, like Renee Cox.

RENEE COX: I look at the work, and it's something that she's just speaking her mind. She's not holding back.

XAVIERA SIMMONS: She has a very unique eye, and she's a unique human being.

KEYES: Xaviera Simmons and Cox were part of an exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts last year inspired by Catlett. The show featured 21 younger artists alongside Catlett's work. It was curated by Isolde Brielmaier.

ISOLDE BRIELMAIER: She was really a trailblazer. She was passionate for exploring a number of these issues - race, gender, history, memory, politics - in her work.

KEYES: Elizabeth Catlett was born April 15, 1915, in Washington, D.C., the grandchild of slaves. She ended up at Howard University after the then Carnegie Institute of Technology refused to honor a scholarship it had awarded her before realizing she was a black woman. By 1940, Catlett had received a master of fine arts at the University of Iowa. Her mentor there - American gothic painter Grant Wood - urged her to portray what she knew best, inspiring her focus on black people, women and the ongoing struggle for equality. Last year, Catlett told NPR her work still deals with the poor and disenfranchised.

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ELIZABETH CATLETT: I still believe in getting rid of discrimination.

KEYES: Catlett's pieces include a 1969 linoleum cut called "Malcolm X Speaks for Us," a bust of Martin Luther King Jr., a powerful 1939 sculpture depicting an African-American mother holding her child and another linoleum cut portraying the dignity of a sharecropper. Yet many people in the United States weren't familiar with her work, as she told NPR in 2003.

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CATLETT: I as an artist, a black woman artist, have been invisible in the art world for years.

KEYES: Partly because of discrimination and partly because Catlett spent most of the last 60 years in Mexico. She went there on a fellowship in the 1940s, married Mexican artist Francisco Mora and eventually became a citizen. But her commitment to social issues led the U.S. government to deny her a travel visa for nearly a decade, declaring her an undesirable alien. Still, her son, Francisco Mora Catlett, says his mother remained dedicated to the idea that her work should be accessible to everyone.

FRANCISCO MORA CATLETT: She says people need to go into a museum and find pieces of art that they can identify with.

KEYES: He also said it was important to his mother that her work awakened something in the people viewing it because it was people she was working for.

MORA CATLETT: Somebody will come and say, this piece of your mother made me reflect about my life, and I have to change into this. And it's always a positive, constructive change that makes people or encourages people to do something about their life or about the lives of other people.

KEYES: Mora Catlett says he admired his mother's courage and her determination to stick to her belief in social justice. And looking at her work over the course of her life makes it clear she remained dedicated to championing the interests of the people. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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