Elizabeth Catlett’s Floating Family, 1996, Legler Branch of the Chicago Public Library

Elizabeth Catlett’s Floating Family, 1996, is suspended high above the Legler Branch of the Chicago Public Library circulation desk in West Garfield Park. It is a sculpture that captures the essence of her artistic and activist pursuits. The work portrays a mother and daughter reaching out and grasping each other’s hands while suspended in the air. Here, gravity and reality are suspended; despite being isolated from the rest of the world, they are together. They possess a unity, an emotional weightlessness, a fluidity that we, the viewer, could never fully grasp. The work captures Catlett’s consistent celebration of Black women’s strength, resilience, and beauty across her extensive body of work in painting, sculpture, and printmaking.

Despite appearing suspended in the air, they remain anchored through their shared bond, which speaks to the powerful theme of familial love. The sky serves as their backdrop, or in the case of this setting, endless bookshelves, providing a sense of freedom and hope, a transfer or passing down of familial knowledge. The act of floating signifies the transcendence of societal limitations, suggesting a form of liberation from the historical and systemic challenges that Black women continue to face.

Catlett sculpted each of these figures from a single trunk of Mexican primavera wood. The arms and legs were separately crafted from another trunk and later attached to the figures. Primavera is a firm, light wood, often referred to as white or golden mahogany. It’s a beautiful wood with a high luster on the raw veneer, its creamy yellowish-red color interrupted by deep orange and brown streaks. Throughout the piece, you can see Catlett’s respect for the wood, with its organic warmth and malleability, which is particularly well-suited to Catlett’s aim of portraying the strength and beauty of her subjects.

Elizabeth Catlett’s choice of wood as her medium was not just a practical decision but a testament to her artistic process. She saw in wood a material that could be carved directly, a process that was both demanding and delicate. This intimate and expressive method allowed her to engage deeply with her material, infusing it with emotional depth and resonance. The way she reshapes the wood, the artistry to reshape the female figure as an expression of admiration and honor.

Catlett’s approach to working with wood was influenced by her time in Mexico, where she became deeply involved with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), a collective of artists dedicated to using their art to promote social change. Here, she was exposed to the Mexican tradition of wood carving and printmaking, which had a lasting impact on her work. She was also influenced by other artists such as José Luis Cuevas and Francisco Zúñiga, who were known for their figurative sculptures and helped her refine her use of form and volume.

She arrived in Mexico in 1946 with her then-husband, artist Charles White. She was pretty settled by the time the couple divorced in 1947. Catlett had an intense connection to the TGP collective ethos of the “people’s art.” The TGP was known for its support of anti-fascist and anti-imperialist causes, and its members used printmaking as a primary medium to reach and educate the masses. Unlike the segregation and racial violence at home, here, Catlett was able to work freely and express her political beliefs without the fear of persecution. 

Long before her arrival, in 1933, TGP founders Leopoldo Méndez and Pablo O’Higgins established the Mexican Communist Party-affiliated artist organization Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR, or League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists). As a result of her association, in the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the U.S. embassy in Mexico scrutinized Catlett, particularly for her striking art, political activism, and connections to communism. Consequently, the U.S. government labeled her an “undesirable alien,” restricting her ability to travel back to the United States. In 1962, Catlett obtained full Mexican citizenship (Her U.S. citizenship reinstatement came only in 2002). 

Throughout life in Mexico, Catlett remained actively engaged in her adopted country’s artistic and political life while maintaining her connections to African American cultural and political issues in the U.S. Her dual engagement enriched her work, allowing her to create a body of work that resonated with audiences across borders.

Elizabeth Catlett’s Floating Family is not just a sculpture; it is a statement, a piece of history, and a reflection of the artist’s unyielding commitment to social justice and the veneration of Black women. Positioned prominently at the Library, it serves as a beacon of inspiration and a reminder of the power of art as a tool for social change and cultural expression. This work has been, and will be again, there. Open and free for the people. Catlett’s work, with its deep roots in personal and communal struggles, continues to inspire and challenge viewers, encouraging a deeper appreciation of the complex narratives that shape the African American experience. Through Floating Family, Catlett remains a pivotal figure in the dialogue around women in roles of power and resilience, challenging the traditional narratives and offering a new, empowering perspective on Black identity.