“I’d lived in 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.”

–Elizabeth Catlett, as quoted in Arts & Sciences magazine

 

By Sarah Binder

She is known as a woman artist or a black artist, but that’s not what defines her.

“She is, first and foremost, an artist,” said Sean Ulmer, curator of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, of the work of Elizabeth Catlett.

“I Am: Prints by Elizabeth Catlett” will be on display at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art until May 26.

Ms. Catlett (1915-2012) was born in Washington D.C. and received a degree in printmaking from Howard University. She then came to Iowa to study under Grant Wood and became the first woman to receive a masters of fine arts in sculpture, a traditionally male-dominated art.

“She really was kind of a maverick woman in choosing this career path,” Mr. Ulmer said.

Mr. Wood famously told his students to create art about what they knew best. For Ms. Catlett, that meant her experiences as a black woman in a world dominated by white men.

“The work very much reflects Catlett’s own life,” Mr. Ulmer said. “In all of the work, you see things she knew and experienced.”

A young woman looks nervously over a stylized city skyline in “Girl and the City,” a  new mother holds her baby close in “Maternity,” and an old woman continues to work the land to survive in “Sharecropper.”

The 28 prints on display in “I Am” focus on these images of women and children from everyday life. They range from the 1940s-2000s, and showcase a variety of printmaking techniques.

“It still feels very, very relevant today because of the power that she infuses in these works,” Mr. Ulmer said.

The prints are owned by the University of Iowa Museum of Art and are part of the Legacies for Iowa Collections Sharing Project. While the UI museum is without a permanent facility, the curators are creating shows from the 14,000 objects in their permanent collection. These exhibits will be displayed in museums across Iowa.

The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art had been interested in exhibiting a show on Ms. Catlett for some time, Mr. Ulmer said. Because of the museum’s extensive Grant Wood collection, it had an interest in showing the work of one of Mr. Wood’s students.

“It was a way of showing to the public something we couldn’t do on our own,” Mr. Ulmer said of the loaned objects.

Learn more:

“Elizabeth Catlett: Where She Stands in American Art History.”

Lecture by Barbara Mooney, April 4, 7 p.m. Ms. Mooney, a University of Iowa professor, will discuss Ms. Catlett’s influence in the context of African American art and the larger  picture of American art.

“For My People: Elizabeth Catlett at Iowa and Beyond.”

Lecture by Kathy Edwards, April 25, 7 p.m. Ms. Edwards is the Chief Curator at the University of Iowa Museum of Art and met Ms. Catlett before her death at the age of 96.  She will share her personal stories of the artist and how her career was influenced by the University of Iowa.

“Elizabeth Catlett: Printmaker and Sculptor.”

Lecture by Melanie Herzog, May 16, 7 p.m. Ms. Herzog, professor of art history and Chair of the Art Department at Edgewood College, Madison, Wis., is the author of several books  and articles on Elizabeth Catlett. She will discuss how her printed and sculpted works compare.

All lectures are free and open to the public and will take place at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE. For more information, visit www.crma.org.

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