Higher education

University of Iowa seeks to name new dorm after African-American artist

Elizabeth Catlett was not allowed to live on campus when she graduated in 1940

When she graduated in 1940, Elizabeth Catlett became one of the first three MFA graduates from the University of Iowa and was the first African American woman to earn the degree. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Women’s Archives, Shirley Briggs Papers).
When she graduated in 1940, Elizabeth Catlett became one of the first three MFA graduates from the University of Iowa and was the first African American woman to earn the degree. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Women’s Archives, Shirley Briggs Papers).

By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette

IOWA CITY — Because she was black, Elizabeth Catlett was prohibited from living in campus housing as a University of Iowa student in the 1930s.

Yet despite the many forms of discrimination she experienced in her academic pursuits, Catlett became one of the UI’s first master of fine arts graduates in 1940. And, in a profound move, the university announced plans Wednesday to name its newest residence hall for her.

“When a young Elizabeth Catlett arrived in 1938, as was the case with many other universities, it would not have been allowed for her to live in the residence hall we now honor her with,” Rod Lehnertz, senior vice president for finance and operations, said during a Board of Regents committee meeting.

On Thursday, the full board will consider the university’s request to name its new 12-story residence hall under construction on the east side of campus along Madison Street the “Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall.”

The $95 million, 300,000-square-foot facility is going up on the site of the old Iowa City water plant behind the Burge, Currier and Stanley residence halls and is expected to provide 1,049 beds starting in fall 2017.

The hall overlooks the Iowa River and sits near the Dey House, which houses the historic Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which produces MFA graduates like Catlett.

Because black men and women weren’t allowed to live in campus housing at the UI until Betty Jean Arnett desegregated Currier Hall in 1945, Catlett lived off campus in a home sponsored by the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.

After graduation, she became “one of the most important 20th century American sculptors and printmakers,” according to the university’s naming request. Her work, according to the university, was influenced by the advice of her teacher — Grant Wood — to “paint what you know.”

So she depicted African American life in the 20th century — frequently featuring the female experience, motherhood, and working-class African Americans, along with icons like Malcom X, Angela Davis and Sojourner Truth.

Her work included painting, drawing, print making and sculpture. It has been exhibited globally and is included in collections in the Modern Museum of Art and Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The UI in 2002 bought Catlett’s “Sharecropper,” and the UI Museum of Art in 2006 bought another 28 prints for its permanent collection. Catlett in turn donated the proceeds to the UI Foundation to create the Elizabeth Catlett Scholarship Fund, which supports students in printmaking, Lehnertz said.

Catlett, who eventually moved to Mexico and died in 2012, was awarded honorary degrees by 12 colleges and universities, including the University of Michigan, Syracuse University and Carnegie Mellon University, Lehnertz said.

UI honored her with a distinguished alumni award for achievement in 1996 and by naming her as an alumni fellow of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2006.

“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,” Lehnertz said.

Vice President of Student Life Tom Rocklin said Catlett’s achievements also serve as a testament “to the rewards of persevering in the face of daily obstacles.”


If the regents agree to name the new residence hall after Catlett, officials said the Art in State Buildings committee will consider options for displaying Catlett’s work there.

“Not only may UI students soon live in a residence hall named after a woman who was not allowed to live on campus because of her race, but they might also live with her art — the truest testament of her contribution to our legacy of creative excellence,” said Lena Hill, UI English and African American studies professor, in a news release. “I think the UI is ready to engage both parts of the history Catlett’s achievements embody.”


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