Catlett has rich UI legacy

Remembering UI alumna Elizabeth Catlett for Black History Month.


Courtesy of: University of Iowa/ Iowa Now

By Mikhayla Hughes-Shaw

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Elizabeth Catlett was the first woman and African American to graduate with a M.F.A. in visual arts from UI.

According to the book Invisible Hawkeyes, Catlett attended the graduate school at the UI from 1938-1940. During this time, she studied painting under the famous Iowan artist Grant Wood.Kathleen Edwards, the Chief Curator of the UI Museum of Art shared that Catlett had previously attended Howard University as an undergraduate, where she graduated cum laude. During this time, she was influenced by Latin American, Mexican, and African American art. Although she studied a variety of art in her undergraduate years, she found the area that would later define her career — sculpture. She spent the majority of her time at the UI perfecting the craft.

Regardless of her high academic stance at the UI, Catlett still faced the reality of being an African American student during a time of great segregation. According to Edwards, the residence halls of the UI were racially segregated until 1946 — six years after Catlett graduated with her M.F.A.

“[African American students] were forced to look beyond the university for everything from housing to eateries to clothing stores and hair care,” Edwards said.

Kyah Bridges, the current president of the UI chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, shared that Catlett lived in the first historic house dedicated to the sorority at the UI. She is still recognized today by her fellow sorority members for her bold statements about equal rights and the advancements in art she was responsible for.

“She lived out her Delta principles every day,” Bridges said. “She surely left a legacy on our beloved sisterhood.”

Edwards said the limitations Catlett faced because of her race directly influenced her art. After her time at the UI, she continued her focus on equal rights and portraying African Americans in her art. According to, she created prints for civil-rights leaders Angela Davis and Malcom X. After winning numerous awards for her work, she grew in popularity throughout the United States.

“[Segregation] made her more determined to focus on the subject of African American women and the fight for equality of African American people, which she did for her entire career,” Edwards said.

The UI now holds 29 prints for the permanent art collection, along with one sculpture named *Stepping Out*, which has been displayed in the IMU Hubbard Commons since 2007.

The new residence hall on Madison Street set to open in August will be named after Catlett.

This is a bold move on the part of the university, especially because during Catlett’s time here, she wasn’t able to live in a dorm, said UI Associate Professor Michael Hill, an author of Invisible Hawkeyes.

Edwards shared that the residence hall will also feature a new sculpture, making the grand total 31 for the number of pieces in the university’s possession.


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