Elizabeth Catlett Mora, 40MFA, recipient of the first master's of fine arts degree in sculpture granted by the University of Iowa, was born into a work of limited options, where fortunate black women could become teachers and nurses. The less fortunate would clean houses. But she would have none of it. When art school administrators praised her work but balked at the color of her skin, she kept chipping away. Today, her sculptures, paintings, and graphics offer testament not only to her talent, but to the beauty of her vision.
Born in Washington, D.C., Catlett Mora studied art at Howard University, where she majored in design and studied printmaking, drawing, and art history. I 1934, she began work in the mural division of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). After graduating with honors in 1936, she took a high school teaching job in North Carolina, but—frustrated by the low teaching salaries for blacks—she left after two years.
Catlett Mora then traveled to the University of Iowa, where she formally studied sculpture for the first time. At Iowa, she was influenced by American landscape painter Grant Wood, who urged his students to master disciplines on their way to working with subjects they knew best. For Catlett Mora, this meant blacks, especially black women. It was at Iowa that she began in earnest to depict the themes and lives of African-Americans in her art. Catlett Mora's graduate thesis, a sculpture of a black mother and child, received first prize in the 1940 American Negro Exposition held in Chicago, and she began to be recognized as an artist of not only technical accomplishment, but one with deeply felt purpose and artistic theme.
During the next few years, Catlett Mora became a university teacher, first in New Orleans and then in New York City. She continued to develop as an artist, gaining recognition from exhibitions at places such as the Modern Art Museum of Mexico and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
After working in Mexico with artists at the Taller de Grafica Popular, she married Mexican artist Francisco Mora in 1947 and made Mexico her permanent home. She became the first female professor of sculpture and head of the sculpture department at the national School of Fine Arts, San Carlos, in Mexico City in 1958, holding the position until 1976.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, Catlett Mora garnered much critical recognition in both the United States and Mexico. She has received numerous awards and commissions. The National Council of Negro Women in New York City commissioned her to create a bronze sculpture, and her bronze relief adorns the Chemical Engineering Building at Howard University. Catlett Mora is one of American's greatest contemporary black artists, and her work is now beginning to gain the recognition that many scholars and critics have said it has deserved.
Commenting on her passionate need to represent the human form, Catlett Mora said, "I wan the ordinary person to be able to relate to what I am doing. Working, figuratively, is the dues I must, want, and am privileged to pay so that ordinary people can relate to my work at and get lost trying to figure out what it means. True art always comes from cultural necessity."
Since 1963, the University of Iowa has annually recognized accomplished alumni and friends with Distinguished Alumni Awards. Awards are presented in seven categories: Achievement, Service, Hickerson Recognition, Faculty, Staff, Recent Graduate, and Friend of the University.