CEDAR RAPIDS --The exhibition title, "I AM," perfectly describes Elizabeth Catlett's (1915-2012) passionate and confrontational work now on view at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

The legendary printmaker and sculptor devoted her art practice to advocating for social change and visually describing the experience of African-Americans. This abundant collection spans three galleries and focuses primarily on her dynamic printmaking work created during her groundbreaking career from 1960 to her death April 2, 2012.

The details

  • What: Trio of exhibits: “I AM: Prints by Elizabeth Catlett,” “The Restless Spirit: American Art from the Collection” and “Bertha Jaques: Botanical Prints and Photographs”
  • Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
  • When: “I AM: Prints by Elizabeth Catlett” is open through May 26; “The Restless Spirit: American Art from the Collection” is an ongoing exhibit and “Bertha Jaques: Botanical Prints and Photographs” closes May 12
  • More information: Crma.org

Catlett excels at producing striking and poignant portraiture that conveys each individual's story through delicate and repetitive mark making.

The 28 prints showcase her various aesthetic styles, and consistent technical virtuosity.

One gallery features her stunning lithographs and relief prints that depict the hardships endured by African American women; specifically female farmworkers, mothers, and activists. The artist was inspired to produce these prints while living in Mexico and participating in print workshops that encouraged activism through art. Among these maternal yet robust depictions is the iconic Sharecropper (1968) linocut print. A dark skinned woman wearing a wide brim straw hat gazes off the picture plane with a commanding stare.

Catlett uses the nature of the linocut to her advantage by creating a texture evocative of leathery skin on the woman's face. The lyrical mark making culminates into a powerful portrait of a weathered but determined field worker. She is able to achieve nearly the same smoothness and tonal gradation in her linocuts as she does in her lithographs.

Rhythmic lines gently lead the viewer's eye over the surface of each subject's face and throughout the composition. These works demonstrate the artist's interest in giving a voice to marginalized individuals.

Contrasting the feminine portraits are a number of silkscreens depicting politically charged images of famous African American leaders and Black Power symbols. While some of her subjects are anonymous and allusive; the partially abstracted faces of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. pervade these prints.

In Malcolm X Speaks for Us the artist seamlessly fuses several printmaking techniques. Linocut and silkscreen are combined to produce layers of sketchy lines and flat solid color. Neutral skin tones complement the scarcely used blue-green found through the composition. While Catlett studied under Grant Wood at the University of Iowa he encouraged her to, “make art about what you know best.”

These prints are evidence that she took the Iowa artist's advice to heart.

Also found in first floor galleries is a new and innovative exhibition providing a thorough overview of American Art selected directly from CRMA's collection. The Restless Spirit is organized thematically and explores common tropes found in Western Art throughout the 19th and 20th century.

Through deconstructing images of “worship, expansion and settlement” the show reveals the complexity and difficulty of defining the melting pot of American Art.  The works shows how each theme has been articulated through a broad range of media and from a diversity of vantage points.

The “expansion” portion of this show questions the depiction of Indigenous peoples as both idealized and impoverished in art. Black and white photographs by Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret document life on the Meskwaki Settlement in the 1960s and seek to a capture an aesthetic honesty.  Pencil drawings and etchings present the cowboy as both a struggling herdsmen and courageous outdoorsmen. Some of the smaller works on paper even depict a somewhat childlike rendition of this American icon. One of the most exciting aspects of this exhibition is not only the representation of our national history but that of Eastern Iowa.

The museum is also celebrating the 150th birthday of printmaking pioneer and longtime Cedar Rapids resident Bertha Jacques with a new exhibition on the upper level. CRMA is fortunate enough to own nearly every work produced by the artist and the installation gives us a glimpse of her expertly executed botanical prints and cyanotypes.  

The artist, author, and teacher held an interest in environmental preservation and this concern is evident in her carefully rendered images of flora. This new three part exhibition examines the creative paths of several pioneering artists and surveys personal and cultural histories that collectively represent the complexities of social experience.