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At 91 Artist Elizabeth Catlett Still Brings People to Art

Making art accessible and easy to understand has been Elizabeth Catlett's life-long goal. The work of this African-American artist is on display in some of world's great art galleries. But Catlett has tried to connect to a much wider audience. In a special collaboration with a northern New Jersey college, she has mounted an exhibition of her work designed for both those who know art and those who know nothing at all.

Elizabeth Catlett's sculptures and prints are featured in collections around the world, from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to the National Museum of Prague. Her works sell for thousands of dollars. But catching the attention of the elite art world is the last thing on the mind of this 91-year-old artist.

"What I'm trying to do is to do art that makes people want to go to a museum," she says, explaining that's one of the reasons why she wanted her retrospective exhibition at the New Jersey City University. "I had it at the University, because a lot of those people don't go to the museums." The school attracts students from a working-class background; the very people Catlett says influence her as an artist.

"What inspires me is the beauty of my people, especially working people," she says. "They don't have on a lot of make-up, [making them look] like everyone else. Faces that I see with different expressions, and people's bodies that I see… this is what inspires me because I am working for them."

"Working for them" involves creating art that is modern and very easy to understand. A frequent theme is the African and Latin American struggle for equality, with a focus on the role of women. Catlett's best-known print, called Sharecropper, features a tired-looking black woman. Underneath her straw hat, her face is leathery and full of well-worn wrinkles.

One of her most iconic sculptures can be seen in a New York City park, overlooking the Hudson River. She designed the four and a half meter tall bronze piece to honor African-American author, Ralph Ellison. The silhouette of a man is carved out of the towering flat sheet of dark brown metal, a visual reference to the title of his book about the black experience of being ignored by white society.

"I was thinking, he wrote the Invisible Man, so why don't I do an invisible man, since it was the idea of a positive and a negative shape, that's why I did it."

Catlett's desire to make art accessible flowered in Mexico, where she traveled on a fellowship in 1946. She joined the Workshop for Popular Graphics (Taller de Grafica Popular), a group that believed high-quality art should to be used to promote social change. She met and married Mexican artist Francisco Mora, and made Mexico her home. But her political activities did not sit well with the American government. In 1962, after the U.S. government had banned her return for more than 10 years, Catlett became a Mexican citizen. She finally regained her U.S. citizenship in 2002.

Despite the challenges of her expatriate life -- and a recent operation -- Catlett has remained a person of high spirits. Recently she convinced a woman who takes care of her in her Manhattan apartment to visit a museum for the first time. "She said to me that she'd never been to a museum," she recalls. "Then she asked me, 'What should I wear?' and I said 'Wear what you have on.' There is a sort of feeling that [art] is something for [the] elite." Catlett says the woman enjoyed her visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was able to relate to the African and Egyptian art she saw there.

Catlett's success at bringing people to art was evident in a wood-paneled lecture room on the New Jersey City University campus, where art experts, students and Catlett fans gathered to celebrate her life and work. "It's been bringing a whole new realm of people who would have never come to this school," says artist and NJCU professor Ben Jones. He points to the exhibition's success as an example of her influence. "That's the power of Mrs. Catlett. The show is called 'For My People,' and she's bringing the people. Again, her mission is to relate art to the common people… even though it's on a sophisticated masterful craftsmanship level."

The University gave Elizabeth Catlett an honorary degree four years ago. At the ceremony, when she saw the student population, she proposed staging this exhibition as part of her mission to bring art to new audiences. That effort continues once the retrospective is over. Some of the pieces will be displayed at two other colleges in the state, while the artist turns her attention to creating new wood sculptures for her next show.