Through the support of Professor James Porter,3
Catlett was hired as an artist in the WPA Program. During
that time Catlett was also commissioned to do a mural for
a Washington, D.C. dentist. While searching for examples
of mural paintings, Catlett encountered reproductions of
the work of the Mexican muralists-- Miguel Covarrubias
and, of course, the three grandes--Rivera, Orozco, and
Siqueiros. In completing the mural commission, Catlett
elected to borrow extensively from Covarrubias' work (a
point that she told the artist upon meeting him years
later). While still a student, Catlett explored African
and Mexican artistic conventions and styles that would
resonate in her creative work for years to come.
After working in North Carolina and leading the protest against inequities in salaries between Black and white teachers, Catlett headed for graduate school in 1938. Her social consciousness and respect for various artistic traditions was further enhanced by studying with the painter Grant Wood at the University of Iowa. Catlett's bold, essentialist reduction of painted forms led Wood to encourage her to study sculpture, which she did, becoming the recipient of the University of Iowa's first Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree awarded in Sculpture in 1940.
Also, in l940, Catlett was hired to teach at Dillard University in New Orleans, where she continued her activism, often serving as a spokesperson against segregation and authoritarinism, two characteristic threads in the warp and weft of the Deep South's social tapestry. While still at Dillard, Catlett studied at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago during the summer of 1941. Here she was reunited with her University of Iowa roommate poet/writer Margaret Walker, with artist/poet Margaret Goss Burroughs, and with artists Eldzier Cortor and Charles White, to whom Catlett was married for a short while.