Renowned sculptor and printmaker, Elizabeth Catlett, died this week at age 96. Though she called Mexico home for most of her life, she spent a few of her formative years at The University of Iowa. Catlett moved to Iowa City in 1938 to study under Grant Wood at the University’s newly established art school. She received her M.F.A in 1940, the first ever awarded at The University of Iowa.
Catlett called Wood “a very generous teacher” who encouraged his students to “paint what you know.” For Catlett, this meant strong black women and themes of social justice.
It is hard not to imagine that “what she knew” at Iowa influenced her work. Catlett excelled in her art, but like many African American students at the time, the social segregation of Iowa City meant working harder than her white classmates to succeed. Though African Americans could enroll at the University, they were not accepted in the dormitories and so were left to find off-campus housing on their own.
Catlett later recounted her surprise at Iowa’s combination of openness and segregation. “I’d lived in an African American culture my whole life…In Iowa City, I suddenly was living among white people, but I still couldn’t do things like live in the dorms.”
Scholar Richard Breaux, in his article on the housing problems faced by African American women students, notes that Catlett lived at a number of places during her time at Iowa, including the Federation Home at 942 Iowa Avenue, a private rooming house for African American women students. Black students were not allowed entrance to the student Union or most Iowa City restaurants, so Catlett sometimes waited tables for meals at Vivian’s Chicken Shack, a restaurant opened by fellow African American alum, Vivian Trent.
While at Iowa, Catlett connected with writer Margaret Walker, then a student of the newly created Iowa Writers Workshop. Walker and Catlett lived together briefly and graduated from their respective Masters’ programs the same year. Much later in their lives, Catlett produced a series of six prints inspired by Walker’s 1937 poem “For My People” for a 1992 limited edition reissue of the poem.
In addition to these prints, The University of of Iowa Museum of Art holds a number of Catlett’s works, all accessible through the Iowa Digital Library.