The University of Iowa is naming its newest residence hall in honor of Elizabeth Catlett, the celebrated artist and the first African American woman to earn a master of fine arts degree at the university. The Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall will be a 300,000-square foot, 12-story building that will provide living space for more than 1,000 students.
When Catlett arrived at the University of Iowa, she was not permitted to live on campus due to the color of her skin. Instead, she lived in a home sponsored by the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. The first African American to live in campus housing was Betty Jean Arnett in 1945.
Elizabeth Catlett was the granddaughter of slaves. She was born in Washington, D.C., and earned a bachelor’s degree at Howard University and a master of fine arts degree at the University of Iowa. Her master’s degree project was the sculpture “Negro Mother and Child,” which won first prize at the 1940 Columbia Exposition in Chicago. After completing her master’s degree, she was named chair of the art department at Dillard University in New Orleans.
In the late 1940s, Catlett moved to Mexico. She was declared an “undesirable alien” by the U.S. government due to her left-leaning political agenda. Catlett became a Mexican citizen in 1962. From 1959 to her retirement in 1975, she chaired the sculpture department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Catlett died in 2012 at the age of 96.
Rod Lehnertz, senior vice president for finance and operations at the University of Iowa, stated that “Elizabeth Catlett’s achievements stand as a testament to the excellence of education in the arts at the University of Iowa and as an inspiration to today’s students and those who will attend the University of Iowa for generations to come.”