Opening Statement: Artwork unlocks 'Door of Justice' at Cooley


Among those attending the art unveiling at the Auburn Hills Campus of Cooley were: (left to right) David Perkins, referee, Juvenile Section, 3rd Judicial Circuit of Michigan; William Weiner, associate dean of International Programs at Cooley; Professor Kathleen Butler; Cooley President Don LeDuc; and Assistant Dean Martha Moore.

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” — Thomas Merton, (1915-68) writer and Trappist monk at a Kentucky abbey.

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

The Thomas M. Cooley Law School has long prided itself as an open door to justice, through its diverse faculty and student body, its programs aimed at the community and through its varied alumni.
Now, Cooley has a limited edition lithograph by a well known African-American artist to help illustrate that mission.
On March 16, the print was unveiled at Cooley’s Auburn Hills campus, and joins a growing number of sculptures, paintings, and photographs displayed among the school’s four statewide campuses.
Titled “The Door of Justice,” by Elizabeth Catlett, the work perfectly fits into Cooley’s criteria, which requires a piece to either have a Michigan theme, a connection to the law school, or have a legal theme.
“We are the open door to justice, and we hope legal students use their education to provide better lives to others and provide others access to justice,” said Cooley Professor Kathleen Butler.
And like Merton’s quote, “The Door of Justice” set up a lively discussion at its unveiling as those in attendance lost themselves in the characters portrayed in the piece, yet found themselves coming back to the artist’s theme — that justice is indeed meant for everyone.
Butler, a member of Cooley’s art committee, was the main speaker at the unveiling and gave a lively history on Catlett and described the newly displayed work.
Butler used interviews of Catlett, and information from curators and essays she found on the Internet, to paint her own picture of Catlett and her work.
In its simplest form, Catlett’s piece shows an African-American man and woman removing a door from its hinges to allow 10 other people to pass through. The door has a tiny emblem of the scales of justice.
To better understand the art, it is absolutely necessary to understand the artist.
Butler said Catlett was born in 1915, in Washington, D.C., and raised by her widowed mother, and grandparents, who had been slaves. Bedtime stories were not the normal Disney fare; Catlett was told tales of slavery by her relatives, Butler said.
Butler said Catlett considered herself “a radical” and once, while in high school, stood in front of the Supreme Court building in the nation’s capitol with a noose around her neck in protest of lynchings, before being taken away by police.
Butler said Catlett received her bachelor’s degree in painting from Howard University, and then attended the University of Iowa, studying under Grant Wood, a regionalist painter, who told her to focus her art on what she knew best.
Her first work there was a drawing of a girl ironing. It was also where Catlett worked with white people for the first time.
“Wood’s advice has shaped Catlett’s career and appears in most articles I have read about her,” Butler said.
Catlett’s focus in her art has featured ordinary working women and mothers and children. Catlett said that “black women have been cast in the role of carrying on the survival of black people through their position as mothers and wives, protecting and educating and stimulating children and black men.”
Butler said Catlett received her master’s degree from Iowa in 1940 in sculpture, the first ever awarded at the graduate school. For her thesis, Butler said, Catlett produced a limestone sculpture titled “Mother and Child,” which won first prize at the “American Negro Exposition” in Chicago.
Catlett then began teaching at Dillard University in New Orleans.
Butler said many of Catlett’s students had never been to an art museum, and she wanted to take them to see an exhibit at the Delgado museum. But there was a problem, Butler said.
 “The museum was not closed to African-Americans, but it was situated in a park that was closed to them, so she had her students bused directly to the museum’s door,” she said.
After Dillard, Catlett worked at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem, an alternative community school that provided instruction for working men and women of the city.
From that experience, Catlett did a series of paintings, prints and sculptures with the theme “I Am a Negro Woman.“
In 1946, Catlett traveled to Mexico for a fellowship at the Taller de Grafica Popular (TGP), a print-making collective dedicated to social change and the concerns of working people.
“Her interest in print making, then and now, comes from her interest in using art to transform society,” Butler said.
Butler said Catlett’s guest status at TPG turned into full membership, and she married Francisco Mora, a Mexican artist, and the couple raised three sons in Mexico.
In 1959, Catlett became the first woman sculpture professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, a position she held until 1975.
Butler said Catlett chose to stay in Mexico, in part, because of the U.S. government’s attacks on progressive artists, intellectuals and activists after World War II.
The Carver School in Harlem was among many the U.S. Department of Justice deemed in 1947 as totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive, and Butler said the Cold War atmosphere led to Catlett’s decision to become a Mexican citizen.
Butler said the TPG was labeled a Communist Front organization, prohibiting its members from entering the United States, and Catlett applied for Mexican citizenship to avoid deportation and questioning by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
She was later declared an “undesirable alien,” Butler said, and did not received a visa to re-enter her homeland until 1971.
“Although Catlett was not allowed in the U.S., in the ‘60s, her art turned to the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles here,” Butler said. Catlett, now 95, splits her time between Mexico and New York. “Her sons are jazz musicians, filmmakers and visual artists, and she is the grandmother to “America’s Next Top Model” season four winner, Naima Mora, of Detroit,” Butler said.
In 2000, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund commissioner Catlett’s work, “The Door to Justice,” to commemorate its 60th anniversary.
“The lithograph typifies Catlett’s art in style and theme,” Butler said.
“It’s a spare, expressive figural work — realistic but slightly abstracted, and it portrays those who suffer and those who fight social injustice and inequality.”
In describing the work, an 18-inch by 22.5-inch limited edition lithograph, signed and numbered by Catlett, Butler said the pair are not simply opening the door, “they must take the door down to get justice.”
She said the door  was not access to justice, “but a barricade” while those behind the door  wait to enter. Butler said the ten gathered to pass through the door “wait solemnly for admission.”
Among the 10 are a man in a suit and a young man with a backwards baseball cap; a light-skinned woman; several other females and several youngsters.
Butler believes among this eclectic group of people, some seem serious, or angry, or exhausted. “The flatness of the images combined with the stained glass colors and the saintly halos above the people in back give the moment a religious tone,” Butler said.
And while several of the lighter-skinned people can be white, Butler and her family debated that maybe they are not white, but of mixed-blood.
During the unveiling, those in the audience also had varying viewpoints to the symbolism portrayed in the piece.
Butler said no matter what race the figures represent, those behind the door “remind me that age and gender, too, are obstacles to equal treatment.”
“It really shouldn’t matter” what the races are, said Cooley Associate Dean and Law Professor Martha Moore. “Access to justice, and access to the law, is our mission at Cooley — justice for all.”
This work is one of dozens of art displayed among Cooley’s four campuses.
Associate Dean William Weiner, who also helped unveil “The Door of Justice,” said Cooley’s quest for art started in 2005 with a grant from Cooley President Don LeDuc and has grown to include paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures.
He said LeDuc has given the art committee there several more grants, but 20 of the 40 total pieces have been donated. The collection, many located at the Lansing campus, include a piece from a former student, and an Andy Warhol print of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
He said the art “broadens and enriches” Cooley’s students, staff, faculty and the public. “And this one (The Door of Justice) surely fits,” he said.
Not all the pieces are displayed yet, Weiner said, and no decision has been made where the Catlett lithograph will be on permanent display.
Butler said the work is very appropriate for Cooley’s growing art gallery “because Cooley is an open door to justice, creating a diverse pool of attorneys, who begin working for justice even in law school” through the Innocence Project, legal relief for disaster areas, legal assistance for deploying and returning soldiers and public legal clinics across the state.
Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Leo Bowman was among those attending the unveiling, and said having this particular Catlett piece in its collection also shows that Cooley is mindful of opportunities the law presents to all people.
He said the school has a very diverse student body, “and that’s a good thing for the law.”
Merton, ironically, was a strong supporter of a non-violent civil rights movement in the 1960s. Catlett has received numerous awards for her art, which has been displayed in many galleries.
Some of sculptures are on outdoor display in Mexico, Jackson Mississippi and Washington, D.C. and experts have lauded Catlett for her art, which not only expressed the struggles of her own people, but also helped bring a social conscience to the world of art.