FilmScene premieres documentary honoring UI legend Elizabeth Catlett

On April 15, Elizabeth Catlett’s birthday was celebrated with the world premiere of “Standing Strong: Elizabeth Catlett,” a New Mile Media Arts documentary about the first individual at the University of Iowa to receive a Master of Fine Arts.


Matt Sindt

Film Scene is seen in downtown Iowa City, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

FilmScene at the Chauncey hosted the sold-out world premiere of “Standing Strong: Elizabeth Catlett” on Saturday, a documentary by Kevin Kelley and Marie Wilkes of New Mile Media Arts.

Not only did the film premiere for the first time this weekend, but it also premiered on what would have been Elizabeth Catlett’s 107th birthday, chronicling the first person to receive a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa.

If her name sounds familiar, it is because Catlett Residence Hall on the UI’s campus was named after Catlett in recognition of her artistic achievements. She was barred from living on campus while receiving her degree because she was Black.

The documentary incorporates the commentary of scholars, authors, and acquaintances of Catlett. It also threads a recording of Catlett herself through the film, her voice introducing each segment of the documentary with a brief account of her life at that time.

The documentary was made in partnership with the UI Stanley Museum of Art, and director Lauren Lessing verified the film’s art history information. The museum also arranged for the display of Catlett’s related artwork to be viewed after the film.

Lessing participated in a discussion panel after the film, along with Chris Kramer, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, which sponsored the documentary.

Author Melanie Herzog, who wrote the biography “Elizabeth Catlett: American Artist in Mexico,” participated in the panel alongside Phillip Jones, a recruiter of minority students to the UI, and Jo Jones, former business manager at the UI Museum of Art.

Filmmakers Kelley and Wilkes celebrated both the film and Catlett’s birthday in person at the screening, providing cake and dessert afterward.

Kelley, documentary filmmaker and former employee at the Center for Media Productions and the Office of Strategic Communication at the UI, originally hesitated to pursue the project but was encouraged by Wilkes, his wife, to move forward.

“Marie really pushed me a lot to do this documentary,” Kelley said. “Because I had a lot of creative doubts about how to do it or if I was worthy of doing it. And Marie said, ‘You know, she’s been gone for 12 years, and nobody did anything when she was alive.’”

As a film producer and president of New Mile Media Arts, Wilkes has been fascinated by Catlett ever since she encountered her work at the UI while Wilkes was earning her Master of Fine Arts in dance and Master of Arts in education.

“I love sculptures,” Wilkes said. “But hers are so remarkably different because the women are standing solidly on both feet. They’re not looking for anyone looking at them. They’re not a consumable that’s been observed, and they are women in their own thoughts moving in their world.”

Catlett intended for her work to uplift everyday women and recognize the strength and power of Black women to hold families together and persevere. Her prints and sculptures also depict the experiences of enslaved people, from whom Catlett prided herself on being a descendant.

Catlett lived in Mexico for a large part of her life after college and was initially drawn to the arts of the political scene there. She was then unable to return to the U.S. because she was deemed an undesirable alien by the American government.

Her art was influenced by the events of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. that she observed from afar, including the death of Malcolm X, the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, and the death of a Black Panther. Friends moved her works across the border into the U.S. because she could not enter the country.

RELATED: Elizabeth Catlett: A life and legacy of art, activism, and academic achievement

Catlett maintained dual citizenship in Mexico and the U.S. and considered her work a service to both Black and Mexican people.

The film accomplished this storytelling with Catlett’s compelling audio recording that occasionally made audiences laugh and at other times cry, particularly when Catlett recounted her unlawful detainment in front of her children, and with striking photographs and visuals of artwork.

Iowa City resident Janet Maurer was among those who shed a few tears during the film. She encouraged others to view the film if they have the opportunity.

“There’s many people now that want to cover up the history of Black people in particular, especially [Black people] who are successful or those who are women on top of that,” said Maurer.

UI alumni Candyce Briggs and Krista Thigpen were members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, the same historically Black sorority that Catlett was a member of during her time at the UI.

Thigpen was involved in organizing Catlett Residence Hall’s dedication to the artist.

“I think the key piece of this film really talked about knowing personal limitations of how you can express [yourself] and get your voice heard, and I thought that was a good message of how she didn’t have to be a politician or be in other spaces,” Briggs said. “She used her artwork to really teach people about things that are happening now or in history and to really inspire and empower people.”