The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is celebrating the work of Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), the first woman to earn an MFA in sculpture from the University of Iowa–which she did in 1940. She received a BS cum laude from Howard University in 1935. She had won a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology but the college refused to allow her to matriculate when it learned she was black. At Iowa, Catlett was encouraged by her teacher, “American Gothic” artist Grant Wood, to work with the subject she knew best – strong, maternal African American women. The year she graduated, her thesis piece (a limestone sculpture called Mother and Child) won first prize at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago. The Expo was publicly supported by the Roosevelt administration, although there were some critics who claim the support wasn’t entirely altruistic. The country was preparing to enter the Second World War, and Roosevelt needed to secure African-American support for the war effort.
In 1946, Catlett traveled to Mexico on a fellowship to study woodcarving and ceramic sculpture. She fell in love with the country, married (Mexican artist Francisco Mora), and in 1949 gave up her American citizenship. The exhibition “I AM: Prints by Elizabeth Catlett” is on view at Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Feb 16-May 26, 2013.