Acts of Love
Remembering Cassandra Butts & Her “Art As Sustenance” Project
A passionate commitment to combine visual art and public service
Note: Cassandra Butts had a very down-to-earth manner and exuded humility along with her savvy. So although this article follows the standard journalistic style of referring to all other people by full name or last name, it seems fitting to refer to Cassandra by her first name within the context of her relations with associates who warmly remember her.
In the days following Cassandra Butts’ sudden, unexpected passing, she was remembered for her public policy expertise, her commitment to economic asset development for the poor, and as advisor and friend to Barack Obama. Her remarkable career was outlined in a memorial article in the Washington Post and in a tribute by NAACP Legal Defense Fund. A New York Times columnist spoke out about how her ambassador nomination was blocked by Republicans as part of their vendetta against Obama.
Most peope who knew Cassandra Butts regarded her as special because of her kindness and grace. Barack Obama choked up and shed tears as he recalled Cassandra as “a kind person” during his eulogy at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington.1
Even though Cassandra was a Washington insider who “knew everyone” says her friend Fred Rotondaro, she was interested in people without power and dedicated her life to helping them.
She wanted to use art and support art education in ways that can make a difference in the lives of ordinary people, including those who don’t go to museums and galleries. And she wanted to do so in the memory of Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012).
“I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential," said Catlett. "We have to create an art for liberation and for life.”
Populist art pronouncements can sound like worn-out repetitions of ideas from the 1930s WPA era and the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and ‘70s. Much of today’s most exciting and original visual arts expression stems from the artist’s singular vision, not from arts-for-the-people ideologies.
Cassandra herself was open-minded about the individualistic thrust of much contemporary art. When she visited Kara Walker’s controversial — some said “degrading” — installation at the Domino Sugar factory in 2014, she appreciated Walker’s cleverness and was amused by her contrariness.
But she was steadfast in her own vision of art as “an act of love."
In early August 2014, Cassandra drafted this statement, which she emphasized was “a work in progress”:
The Elizabeth Catlett Arts Education Project
Elizabeth Catlett was an artist of international renown who believed art to be an international language that could cross boundaries and be a voice for people that mirrored their experiences. She believed that art was not a luxury, as many people might think, but a necessity. It documents history, it is a means for obtaining knowledge, and it helps educate people for generations to come.
The Elizabeth Catlett Arts Education Project’s mission will be to carry forward Catlett’s vision of art as sustenance to the everyday existence of people with the objective of energizing and encouraging a new generation of artists and art lovers through programming that seeks to:
*Promote the enduring legacy of Elizabeth Catlett and other great artists who share her vision;
*Provide arts education scholarships and enrichment to public and charter schools; and
*Further Catlett’s vision of art as a public vehicle to empower ordinary people and advance social and democratic development.
Cassandra's concept of “art as sustenance” can go two ways. Supporting the artist's pursuit of original expression is sustenance. When contemporary artists are committed to developing exceptional mastery they extend the leading edge in art. The public at large also would benefit because Catlett project artists also would share Catlett's commitment to inspiring people, particularly those who are struggling.
During the three-year span of the Catlett project, Cassandra held very demanding work positions at the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a federally-supported agency; and at the United Nations. Her work at MCC required extensive travel in Africa. However she worked on the Catlett project whenever she could find the time and was persistent in those efforts until the final week of her life.
On April 28, 2016, Cassandra wrote: “I am finally able to confirm the great news that the Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) has approved an exhibition of Elizabeth Catlett's work that will open in April 2017 to honor her birthday. It is such a relief to have the financial and institutional support of the DC government to move the project forward.”
A few days before her death, Cassandra spoke about the Catlett exhibition with Zoma Wallace, curator at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Wallace says Cassandra was not feeling well but that they planned to meet on Friday, May 27, 2016.
Cassandra Butts died of acute leukemia on May 25, 2016 at her home in Washington DC. 2
"For the brief time I have known her, she was a beacon of light, always so kind and poised, and a model of leadership for me," said Zoma Wallace.
In response to a query about the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ support for the Catlett exhibition, a Commission spokesperson, on June 10, 2016, said:
“The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities maintains its strong interest in presenting an exhibition of Elizabeth Catlett’s work. DCCAH is currently exploring the options available with regard to a timeline and necessary logistics and funding for such a project. DCCAH will be able to make final decisions regarding the project pending final approval of its FY 2017 budget, which takes effect October 1, 2016. We will be happy to provide additional information as we have it.
Good ideas for exhibitions occur to lots of musuem goers. Museum curators and directors get such pitches all of the time. But the outsider’s pitch rarely becomes a show.
Cassandra had a lot to learn about museum operations — most exhibitions are planned multiple years in advance, art loans must be insured, special packing and shipping must be arranged. The art exhibition is the curator's own personal, creative conception, just as a painting or sculpture is an artist's personal expression.
It will be difficult for the DCCAH to organize a full-fledged Catlett exhibition for April 2017, as Cassandra anticipated, because the work on organizing it would already have to be underway by now and the Commission does not have the fully staffed curatorial and preparatory operations of an art museum.
But the Commission’s support is the first major development for Cassandra’s project. A real milestone! A modest, spring 2017 Catlett exhibition would officially launch the project and be a stepping stone to further efforts. Later efforts could include the first major retrospective to bring together Catlett’s prints, sculptures, early paintings, and representations of her public statuary commissions.
If the Elizabeth Catlett Arts Education Project continues, its planning would be coordinated in consultation with the artist’s son Francisco Mora Catlett, a New York City-based jazz and world music drummer and composer, and the trustee of Catlett’s estate. He and his brothers— Juan and David Mora Catlett — have confirmed their support of Cassandra’s' plans.
Cassandra first contacted Francisco Mora Catlett in 2013 but they did not meet in person until the evening of Saturday April 16, 2016. She came to a show of his wife Danys “La Mora” Pérez’s Oyu Oro Afro-Cuban dance company at the Harlem School of the Arts. Mora Catlett drums for the troupe. Cassandra brought her dad along.
"We talked about support for her planned exhibit and my mother's importance for our people’s cultural awareness," Mora Catlett recalls. "She said it is an act of love."
Mora Catlett and Butts also talked about the 2010 Elizabeth Catlett in Mexico exhibition at the Mexico Cultural Institute in Washington DC for festivities that marked the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the centennial commemoration of the Mexican Revolution. And he gave her a copy of his AfroHORN's group's 2016 CD, At the Edge of the Spiral.
Francisco Mora Catlett was very impressed with Cassandra. "She looked firm — absolutely serious — and extremely determined," he said. "Such a great loss. We will pray for her.”
Other project supporters include Jerry Langley, an art collector and former F.D.I.C. attorney who enjoys art historical research. Langley searched a number of number of public records and archival resources on Catlett’s life in Washington DC and her family background and compiled detailed information for the project.
Elizabeth Catlett was born and grew up in Washington DC. Her formative experience in the city shaped her later development. However most district-area residents don’t know much about Catlett if they know about her at all. Native son Duke Ellington has an arts high school named after him. Catlett also should be commemorated in her hometown. Langley's data augments existing biographies of the artist and could be the basis of an exhibition catalogue essay on Catlett’s life in the District.
Private collectors who would be willing to lend Catlett works to the show include artist and art historian Samella Lewis; Dianne Whitfield-Locke, a Washington-DC area dentist and manager of multiple dental practices; Clark Baker, a cardiologist who lives in Birmingham, AL, and drafted a Catlett exhibition proposal narrative for submission to the DCCAH; and Jerry Langley. These collectors own multiple Catlett prints and some also own her sculpture.
Patrick Bradford, who had a rare set of all 15 works in Catlett’s "I am a Negro Woman” series, also offered to lend to the exhibition, but has since put the collection up for auction.
Elizabeth Catlett’s closest, long-term friendship was with the artist and art historian Samella Lewis. Lewis is one of the two Catlett biographers. In addition to seeking the support of the Catlett-Mora family, Cassandra wanted to seek the counsel of Samella Lewis for the project. Dianne Whitfield-Locke and Samella Lewis are good friends and she (Whitfield Locke) offered to be the liaison between Lewis, Cassandra, and the exhibition curator.
In addition to consenting to lending works to the proposed initial exhibition from her own collection, Dianne Whitfield-Locke, as director of a Washington DC –area collectors’ club, spoke to club members, including artist E.J. Montgomery, and they expressed interest in lending works to the show.
A former member of the DC-area collectors club – the late John Russell – owned a very significant Catlett work: the original depiction of the sharecropper subject painted in oil on canvas in 1946.
Catlett’s most famous work is the later version of that work — the Sharecropper linocut, first printed monchromatically in 1952; tinted versions were printed later.
Because of its seminal nature and because oil was a medium in which Catlett only briefly worked, a retrospective Catlett exhibition should include the Sharecropper oil painting. John Russell acquired the painting from Elizabeth Catlett’s sister, Cera Leacock, who lived in DC.
Jerry Langley says that John Russell’s daughter and her husband should know where the Sharecropper painting is and Langley knows how to reach them.
When Walter Evans, a major collector and donor of African American art, was asked about lending to the show, he replied, “We owned two major works by Catlett (Homage to Black Women Poets and Pensive), both of which we gifted to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design),” and referred us to SCAD staff.
Because of Hampton University's long association with Elizabeth Catlett, beginning in 1943, the university owns more than 125 Catlett works, including sculpture. It is the largest and most comprehensive collection of Cattlet’s work in an institution.
Cassandra understood that Hampton University Museum loans to a Catlett exhibition would be arranged through protocols set up by the museum and university administration. Her first step in making those arrangements was meeting with former museum director, Nashid Madyun, and establishing contact with the museum’s curator of collections and interim director, Vanessa Thaxton-Ward.
Vanessa Thaxton-Ward organized the museum’s Elizabeth Catlett — A Celebration of 100 Years exhibition, an accompanying exhibition, Elizabeth Catlett, the Hampton Art Tradition (Jan. 30, 2015-Nov. 14, 2015) and a talk and tea with Catlett’s son, Francisco Mora Catlett.
Project supporter June Kelly, of June Kelly Gallery in New York, identified a number of other institutional Catlett collectors and provided details about the Catlett works in their collections.
The project’s compilation of information about Catlett works in private and institutional collections could be the beginning of a catalogue raisonné.
Other supporters of the Elizabeth Catlett Arts Education Project include former Howard University Patrick Swygert; University of Massachusetts/Amherst art history doctoral candidate Kelli Morgan; and Howard University law professor Patricia Worthy.
Parallel Tracks, Cassandra Butts’ Evolution As A Public Policy Expert and A Visual Art Advocate
The initial Catlett Project supporter was Fred Rotondaro, an art collector and former senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP). CAP is a progressive think tank in Washington DC founded by John Podesta who was President Clinton’s chief of staff.
“Cassandra joined the Center as vice president for domestic policy very early in the history of the center — around 2003-2004," recalls Rotondaro. "She was one of the first staff members and would have known Podesta."
As they worked together at the Center on projects on economic mobility for poor and disadvantaged people, Rotondaro and Cassandra became friends and discovered that they shared an interest in visual art.
In 2007, Cassandra and Rotondaro persuaded Norman Parrish, director of Parrish Gallery Georgetown, to loan art works to CAP as part of the Black History Month observance. These works by noted African American artists were displayed in CAP offices and corridors.
Rotondaro recalls that during her several visits to his home, Cassandra “would walk around and look at the art and talk about the art.”
Rotondaro began collecting art after having been introduced to Elizabeth Catlett’s work by Hugh Price, former director of the national Urban League. Rotondaro’s collection includes works by such African American masters such as Richmond Barthe, Romare Bearden, Lois Mailou Jones, Hale Woodruff, Palmer Hayden, Meta Warwick Fuller and others, including the lesser-known but exceptional Fred Jones. (The forementioned Jerry Langley wrote the first major article on life and art of Fred Jones.)
Fred Rotondaro’s support of African American art and education also includes serving as an advisor to the IRAAA journal, donations to the journal from the Rotondaro family charitable trust, and underwriting the summer study of two Hampton University students in Rome Italy.
In reminiscing about Cassandra, Rotondaro turned his attention to Cassandra’s association with a political newcomer to town.
“I remember when Obama was first elected to the Senate,” says Rotondaro. “His family was in Chicago. He didn’t go to parties or do much socially except go out once a month to meet with Cassandra.”
One day Cassandra told Rotondaro, “I’m going up to Barack’s office. A small group are talking about him running for president. You want to come up?” Rotondaro had to decline that interesting offer because of a previous commitment.
Of Cassandra's art collecting, Rotondaro says, “She could have had an impressive collection had she not been so committed to helping the poor. She could have been earning 10 times more.”
Cassandra’s intelligence, capacity for hard work and long hours, leadership abilities; attractive, business-like appearance; easy grasp of economics and charming manner would have been a perfect fit for the corporate realm. It’s easy to imagine her rising from the legal department to an executive-level position in a major corporation. But her career and personal goals converged to take a more alturistic direction.
With a limited budget for art, Cassandra focused collecting original photographs. She took great pleasure in her small collection and shared her 1949 Carl Van Vechten photographs of Billie Holiday and her Catlett print acquired at auction as attachments to email correspondence. She shot the photos quickly with a phone camera. Light is reflected on the glass of the framed photo that she shot of Billie Holiday with the African sculpture. The other two photos shown here were shot at crooked angles.
After Obama’s first presidential election, Cassandra worked as a deputy counsel in his administration and she and Rotondaro occasionally met in the White House staff dining room for lunch.
He recalls talking to Cassandra in about her eagerness to help the poor during this time. “She could do so in a very direct way via policy and via the power of the State Department” which is affiliated with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). When Cassandra left the White House post, she became senior advisor in the office of the chief executive officer at Millennium, an agency established by the U.S. Congress to apply effective new strategies to foreign aid.
Over the many years of their friendship, Rotondaro never knew Cassandra to have the social life of a typical, single young woman — parties, romantic affairs, committed relationships, emotional drama.
“She had three loves,” recalls Rotondaro. “Her family, African American art and helping poor people.” As an older friend, married with family, Rotondaro may not have known the full extent of Cassandra's personal social life but his impressions are indicative of a "quiet person."
“She was a quiet person," he says. "A delight. Very unscripted. So dedicated. A workaholic.”
Like an artist, Cassandra regarded work as what she must do, not what she gets paid to do.
Rotondaro elaborated on the third love that he cited: “Cassandra had extensive policy knowledge and helped to organize a conference on asset development. She always goes deeply into policy in this area. Now the Center (for American Progress) has an Institute of Asset Development. She was the first one doing it.”
Cassandra also loved jazz, Paris and her BMW Z4.
Catlett Project Planning Begins. Project Concept Expands
Cassandra Butts was working at Millennium in June 2013 when she conferred with Fred Rotondaro about establishing an art scholarship in Elizabeth Catlett’s name and he introduced her to me because of my association with the Hampton University Museum and its IRAAA journal.
Cassandra had been traveling abroad for work in May but was back in DC and said that she would "devote the next few weeks to further developing the scholarship effort.”
An essential initial step would be to reach out to the estate of Elizabeth Catlett, represented by Francisco Catlett Mora, the artist’s son, to request the family’s approval of the project’s name and intent.
On July 3, 2013, Cassandra wrote that she had a very good conversation with Mora Catlett; he was supportive.
During this period Cassandra also had “a very good conversation” with Patricia Worthy, a professor at the Howard Law School and owner of a Catlett print. Patricia Worthy recommended reaching out to former Howard president H. Patrick Swygert and provided the introduction to him.
Swygert became an active project supporter. In addition to his affiliation with Howard (Catlett’s undergraduate alma mater), Swygert can draw from a long history of service on numerous boards, commissions and councils in guiding the Catlett Art Education Project. This service include being on the advisory council for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
In February 2014, President Obama nominated Cassandra to be US ambassador to The Bahamas.
The confirmation process took up “a tremendous amount of my time and attention,” she wrote on August 9, 2014. “And while I still await final confirmation because of frustrating delays in the US Senate, I have been able to devote some time to develop a few ideas on the project.”
Those ideas included the ones in her project mission statement (copied above) and a fall 2014 kick off event for the project that would feature a performance by jazz bassist Rufus Reid of compositions from his jazz album, Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project. Cassandra had a jazz producer friend who knows Reid and agreed to reach out to him once the event plans were confirmed. Reid’s compositions for the album were inspired by his love of Catlett's sculptures. Cassandra also was planning a meeting with a friend who works closely with the Mexican Embassy in DC to discuss the embassy’s possible sponsorship of the project.
After having had to cancel a visit to Hampton because of work conflicts, Cassandra finally was able to visit Hampton in August 2014. She met with then Hampton University Museum director, Nashid Madyun, and toured of the HU Museum galleries. Viewing Hampton's outstanding collections was a great treat for her. During the visit she also discussed her ambassadorial nomination and said she was eagerly looking forward to selecting exceptional works of art for the embassy from the State Department’s Art in Embassies program. Her visit to Hampton ended with a tour of nearby, historic Fort Monroe and dinner at an ocean-front restaurant there. And then off she zoomed in her Z4.
The planned the Fall 2014 Catlett project kick-off event with Rufus Reid was not held. One reason probably was because (as Cassandra wrote in an email) she had been “a bit preoccupied with work around the Ebola response," including involvement with the Ebola Response fundraiser. However, she added: “I’m still noodling around with the Catlett Project and thinking through local foundation support with the help of friends.”
In early November 2014, right before the eruption of the Bill Cosby controversy, Cassandra read the New York Times review of the Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue exhibition of works from and the Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. Collection and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.
“Great to see the article mention Catlett among the figurative canon,” she wrote in an email, referring to the review. “I love the idea of juxtaposing African and African American art and have seen it work to great impact in other exhibitions. It has significantly influenced my thinking on collecting. I plan to take my 21-year old nephew who is an artist and a good barometer on whether the Cosby collection speaks to the present.”
Cassandra initially planned to submit a proposal to DC Commission for the Arts and Humanities for support in organizing an the exhibition that would be held at another site.
Kelli Morgan, an art history doctoral student who had worked for a year as a Mellon fellow at the Birmingham Museum of Art, offered to assist with writing the proposal and organizing the exhibition. Morgan was completing the final work on her dissertation however she was willing to take time out from that work to help prepare the proposal, and predicted that she’d have the degree by the time the actual work on the show began.
The upshot of Cassandra’s communications with the DCAH, however, was that the Commission itself would sponsor the exhibition and its curator, Zoma Wallace, would organize it.
Intertwined Legacies — Elizabeth Catlett and Cassandra Butts
Shortly after he learned about her passing, Fred Rotondaro said the last time he saw Cassandra was “about six months ago” (i.e., early 2016) at a lunch to confer about the Catlett project with H. Patrick Swygert and “a corporate lawyer who, I think, was a Harvard classmate.”
When Cassandra and Francisco Mora Catlett finally met in April 2016 for a performance of Mora Catlett's wife's Danys “La Mora” Pérez’s Afro-Cuban dance company, three forces joined that represent a very extensive and very direct and personal form of globalization.
Originally from Santiago de Cuba, Danys "La Mora" Perez is a master dancer, choreographer and teacher of Afro-Cuban dance movments that are derived from the Yoruba, Congo, Carabalm, Arara, and Dahomeyan cultures of West Africa.
Africa, North America, the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe (Francisco’s brother David is a sculptor based in Germany) are powerfully and inextricably bound together in the family, professional and cultural experiences of Cassandra Butts and Francisco Mora Catlett.
The purpose of Mora-Catlett’s AfroHorn group is based on a concept in Henry Dumas’ short story “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The central metaphor of the story is the Afro Horn, "an instrument so mythically potent that it simultaneously unites and empowers the African diaspora through the sounds of jazz," says the group statement.
Born in the U.S. of an African American mother and a Mexican father, Francisco Mora Catlett envisions the Afrohorn project as “a place that unites the diaspora through a shared experience of in-between-ness.”
That “in-between-ness” is expressed in Cassandra’s project statement about art being "an international language that can cross boundaries and be a voice for people that mirror their experiences." Cassandra Butts-Mora Catlett family intersection also remind us of art being integral to our vitality — “not a luxury.”
The possibilities for the Cassandra Butts/Mora Catlett family's “vision of art as a public vehicle to empower ordinary people and advance social and democratic development” are extensive.3
In commenting on of Cassandra’s sudden, untimely demise, Fred Rotondaro pointed out that she was very health consciousness. She did not drink or smoke and was a vegan or vegetarian. The random, uncontrollable vagaries of life can seem unfair, senseless and horrific.
The story of the Catlett Art Education Project and Cassandra Butts’ dedication should not end here, with the sudden, incomprehensible vagary that curtailed her physical life. The luminous, exemplary aspects of her life, her ideas and her spirit survive.
Project supporters agree, including H. Patrick Swygert.
“I am delighted to learn of your interest in continuing the Catlett Project work of Cassandra Butts,” says Swygert. “It is an important effort and a wonderful way to acknowledge Cassandra. Her intelligence and commitment to sharing the best of our artistic heritage with the greatest possible audience was inspiring. We lost, but we must not forget her unique and enduring spirit.”
Next step? Find a project coordinator. 4
The project should continue in the memory of Cassandra Butts as it promotes the art and humanitarian legacy of Elizabeth Catlett.
The lives and acts of love of these two women are now intertwined.
For more on Elizabeth Catlett, visit the artist's website.
Thanks to Toni Wynn, museum consultant, for meeting with Cassandra Butts to give her some resources for the project and other research assistance.
1. The full transcript of Barack Obama's eulogy at the memorial service for Cassandra Butts is here.
2. Cassandra Butts' final illness was very brief. Explaining the rapid course of acute leukemia, Catlett project supporter Clark Baker, a physician, said, “More than likely she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia and had what is called a 'blast' crisis. That is where the bone marrow is is overwhelmed with producing HUGE numbers of immature lymphoblastic forms.”
3. The myriad possibilities and the elasticity of the "in-betweeness" represented by Cassandra Butts, Elizabeth Catlett and her family can reach from art to complex social, economic and wellness issues such as:
- Linking Pan-American and Pan-African development
- Integrating new ideas about social economies, cooperative business and economic justice with the opportunities of a well-regulated, free enterprise system
- Helping to revive traditions in which all people were “makers”; exploring the possibilities of both making completely by hand and the compatibility of hand making with new technologies
- Supporting an egalitarian aesthetic in which the full range of African-descended women’s beauty is expressed on the mass public level
- Grappling with effects of the drug-related havoc in the U.S. and Mexico
- Aiding whole bodymindspirit integration, health and holism.
4. As a project advisor, I can facilitate communications about the project until a project coordinator is in place. Correspondence can be directed to: email@example.com
The following notes were made to support of Cassandra Butts' mission statement:
Catlett’s work — while exceptionally accomplished — is immediately accessible to all people, including those with little knowledge of art.
Catlett was one of this country’s most steadfast advocates for human rights. She could have enjoyed a secure, comfortable, affluent life as a young and middle-aged woman however she risked her security and safety because of her human rights convictions.
When she lived in Mexico, her association with progressive artists and economic justice causes led to her being barred from entering the United States and declared an "undesirable alien.” In reaction to such harassment, she renounced her American citizenship in 1962 and became a Mexican citizen.
She eventually was able to return to the U.S. and regain her American citizenship but she had paid a heavy toll for her human rights beliefs.
Elizabeth Catlett greatness is not only in her towering artistic achievement. It’s also in her immense courage and humanitarian convictions.