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Highlighting Black Voices: Elizabeth Catlett and Alma Woodsey Thomas

Alma Thomas, Tiptoe Through the Tulips, 1969
Alma Thomas, Tiptoe Through the Tulips, 1969. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

February first marks the beginning of Black History Month. This national holiday calls upon us to remember and honor the all-too-neglected accomplishments and struggles of African Americans throughout history. To aid in highlighting the contributions made by African Americans to our history and culture, we are featuring two African American artists: Elizabeth Catlett, and Alma Woodsey Thomas. Both artists produced extraordinary work during their lifetimes while battling the challenges of being women artists of color working in America and abroad. Although working within the same period, Catlett and Thomas diverged in both style and subject. Comparing the two artists, therefore, offers an insight into how they identified as black women artists. 

Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012) was born and raised in Washington, D.C. by her mother who held several jobs to raise three children. Catlett spent her childhood summers with her grandparents in North Carolina. There, she was exposed to the extreme poverty of formerly enslaved people and their descendants as they continued to be exploited under the rural South’s racist farming system. Her crayon lithograph Domestic Worker (1946) is an example of Catlett’s interest in the labor experience of African American women in the mid-20th century. After she was refused admission to the Carnegie Institute of Technology because of her race, Catlett enrolled at Howard University where she graduated with honors in 1935. Catlett then earned the university’s first MFA awarded to a Black graduate in sculpture at the University of Iowa where she experimented with different mediums including lithography, linoleum cuts, and sculptures in wood, stone, clay, and bronze. The enveloped geometric forms embody the maternal instinct of care and protection through her bronze work Standing Mother and Child (1978). 

In 1946, Catlett moved to Mexico City with her husband and printmaker Charles White. Mexico offered her both an escape from American Jim Crow laws and the opportunity to work at Mexico City’s Taller de Gráfica Popular, a reform-minded printmaking collective. “I am inspired by Black and Mexican people, my two peoples,” said Catlett. At the Taller, Catlett met the Mexican artist Francisco Mora, whom she married after divorcing White, and they had three sons together. Due to the political nature of her work, the United States government declared her an “undesirable alien,” which impaired her ability to return. In A Second Generation (1992) for example, Catlett uses strong contrasting colors and simplified forms to depict African American power through protests.  

Catlett became a Mexican citizen in 1962 and taught at the National School of Fine Arts in Mexico City from 1958–1976. During this time, Catlett produced realistic and highly stylized two- and three-dimensional figures. Inspired by the artistic activism within her circle of Mexican artists, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and David Siqueiros, Catlett created images that showed the constant struggle and surprising strength of women, African Americans, those experiencing poverty, and disadvantaged social classes. Catlett’s wooden sculpture Black Unity (1968) is emblematic of the strength and struggle she sought to capture in her works. The form of the raised fist, a symbolic gesture of the Black Power Movement, supports themes of strength, community, black identity, and rising above extreme adversity. Her subjects ranged from tender maternal images to confrontational symbols of the Black Power movement to portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and the writer Pyllis Whealtley. 

After her U.S. citizenship was reinstated in 2002, Catlett continued to produce work well into her mid-90s, dividing her time between New York and Cuernavaca. During the past 40 years, museums and galleries have held more than 50 solo exhibitions of Catlett’s sculptures and prints, including important retrospectives in 1993 and 1998. “Art for me now,” Catlett wrote in 1971, “must develop from a necessity within my people. It must answer a question, or wake somebody up, or give a shove in the right direction—our liberation.” 

Alma Woodsey Thomas

Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891–1978) was born in Columbus, Georgia, the oldest of four girls. In 1907, seeking relief from the racial violence in the South, her family moved to Washington, D.C. where she was able to take art classes. Although Thomas dreamed of becoming an architect and building bridges, opportunities were scarce for women architects. She instead attended Howard University where she was inspired to change her major from home economics to art. Thomas became their first fine arts graduate in 1924. 

Soon after graduating, Thomas taught art at a D.C. junior high school for 35 years while pursuing her painting part-time. During these years, Thomas moved from representational works to abstraction as she developed her signature style after retiring from teaching. Grandfather’s House (1952) is an intimate depiction of a peaceful summer afternoon expressed through dynamic and tactile brushwork of peach and green. Untitled (1972) instead, narrates the dappled forms she uses throughout her mature style as she layers colors to convey the emotions of nature and time. Thomas’s abstractions are quite distinctive. The way she applies color in dabs and dots to create form and movement has been compared to Byzantine mosaics, the Pointillist technique of Georges Seurat, and the paintings of the Washington Color School. Tiptoe Through the Tulips (1969) wonderfully represents Thomas’ work from the 1960s and ’70s as an exuberant colorist, often featuring dazzling arrays of blue, red, green, and purple strokes; “Alma’s Stripes” she would call them. These broken rows of color pats of dramatic color contrasts and subtle nuances create a music-like visual rhythm. Her circle configurations (Pansies in Washington (1969) for example) evoke the eternity and vastness of the world; how one can become lost in beauty. Like Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers (1968), Thomas draws from nature, abstracting shapes and patterns from the trees and flowers around her. Her style draws from the color theories of Bauhaus artist Johannes Itten and watercolor studies (as in Untitled 1965/72). 

Thomas encountered many barriers as a black woman artist. She believed that the creative spirit is independent of race and gender, and therefore didn’t overtly depict racial or feminist issues in her art.  Untitled (1972) for example, is an abstract piece that could communicate conflict to a viewer through the wall of red marks cut by voids of navy blue as turquoise seeps in through the cracks, a slash of pink sets the composition off balance. Throughout her career, Thomas always strove to create images pleasing to the eye: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man,” she once said. Thomas, therefore, didn’t identify with the label of “Black artist,” saying merely, “I am a painter. I am an American.” At age 75, Thomas debuted her work in an exhibition at Howard in 1966. Thomas became an important role model for women, African Americans, and older artists. She was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and exhibited her paintings at the White House three times.


-Ava Novak

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