Elizabeth Catlett’s Students Aspire, 1977 Howard University, Washington D.C. 

In 1974, Howard University embarked on an ambitious project to integrate art and the newly established chemical engineering building, reflecting its dedication to fostering a multidisciplinary educational environment. After the School of Engineering issued a call to twenty artists, Elizabeth Catlett, a distinguished alumna, emerged as the winner following a rigorous two-year selection process. This marked a significant return for Catlett to Howard, where her formal artistic education had begun. Education was a cornerstone of Elizabeth Catlett’s upbringing; her father taught at Tuskegee Institute, and her maternal grandparents, both former slaves, ensured all their children pursued higher education. Raised in Washington, D.C., Catlett earned a scholarship to Carnegie Institute of Technology but was denied admission because of her race. She graduated with honors from Howard University’s art school in 1935.

During the 1930s, Howard University was a vibrant hub for discussions on the role of the African American artist and modernist practice, where Catlett collaborated with leading figures and prominent artists who played significant roles in the Harlem Renaissance and was profoundly influenced by the university’s commitment to human rights. Nearly three decades after her graduation, Catlett’s winning commission, Students Aspire, 1977, reflects the school’s belief in the importance of a holistic education that includes appreciation and understanding of the arts.

Supported by a $30,000 grant from the Exxon Education Foundation, the piece is a commanding 14-foot tall, robust 1½-ton bronze statue that emerges from its brick backdrop, portraying a male and female figure with arms outstretched, supporting each other and lifting a medallion marked with an equal sign—a potent symbol of equality. The figures are surrounded by additional medallions adorned with instruments symbolic of chemical engineering, such as gears, a protractor, and test tubes, seamlessly integrating the themes of mechanical, civil, chemical, and electrical engineering and cooperative effort.

The physical attributes of the sculpture are meticulously detailed. The figures, engraved and chiseled in dynamic profiles, exhibit a sense of motion and strength, their faces an earnest reflection of the effort equity requires. Catlett sparred no details, I always get lost in the little moments, like the ribbing on his turtleneck or the patterning that repeats throughout her dress. Their bodies form a pyramid structure, arms intertwined, her hand on his shoulder, his resting on her hip, suggesting unity and mutual support. Together, they stand on the sculpture’s base, serve as a platform depicting the roots of a tree with faces, and speak to the heritage and lineage of African-American scientists and engineers, reinforcing the theme of rootedness and growth.

In her depiction, Catlett aimed to question the prevailing norms of competition in education, emphasizing unity and equality instead. She articulated this vision in a 1977 issue of “Black Art: An International Quarterly,” explaining that the equal sign signifies scientific equality and social parity across gender and race. This message resonated deeply during the sculpture’s unveiling on May 12, 1978, where Dr. M. Lucius Walker Jr., the Acting Dean for Howard University’s School of Engineering, highlighted the intertwined nature of art and engineering, echoing sentiments from Samuel C. Florman’s “The Existential Pleasures of Engineering” about the symbiotic relationship between artists and engineers. They likened both professions to inventors. Or, as Florman put it: “Humanists may be pleased to see us (engineers) relying upon the creative artist, of course we rely upon the artist! . . . He is our cousin, our fellow creator.” 

Howard’s focus on human rights resonated with a young, always politically active Catlett, influencing her to create art that reflected the struggles and aspirations of African Americans. The environment at Howard encouraged her to integrate themes of justice, equality, and human dignity into her work. This ideological grounding became a hallmark of her career, driving her to create art that was not only visually compelling but also rich in political and social commentary. Her time at Howard wasn’t just educational; it was a vital period of artistic and intellectual engagement that shaped her lifelong dedication to art as a form of social activism.

Catlett’s work on campus is a profound statement on the potential of educational environments to serve as catalysts for social change. Students Aspire stands as a testament to Howard’s commitment to this spirit, symbolizing the sacrifices made by so many before who contributed to scientific and artistic progress. The sculpture not only commemorates this legacy but also projects it forward, imagining a future where the aspirations of young Black men and women are directed not just toward achieving societal respect but also toward fulfilling their personal and professional dreams.

Students Aspire remains a significant cultural and historical landmark on the Howard University campus, encapsulating the enduring values of equality, support, and unity. It stands as a beacon of inspiration for students and a symbol of the school’s lasting commitment to integrating the arts into its academic fabric, celebrating the creative and transformative ideal of cooperation between art and science. It is also a call to action for equality in academia and fits so well with her legacy of making work as a form of advocacy. Catlett has left an indelible mark on her alma mater, which continues to inspire and challenge the community to aspire to greater heights in personal and collective endeavors.