With a passion for social justice Corita used her pioneering methods and outlook to become a figurehead in the world of teaching and art, continuing to inspire today.
When we consider the genre of art known as “Pop art” visions of a Campbell’s soup can or a dotted Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol normally spring to mind. Made popular at the end of the 1950s, Pop art was a contemporary and dynamic form of art that studied universally recognizable objects with bold and striking artistic representations—not quite the choice of artistic expression we would associate with a nun. Yet, this year marks 30 years since the death of Corita Kent (1918–1986), formally Sister Mary Corita Kent from the order of The Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles, a lesser-known humble artist with a big message of love and hope that she tried to share through her impactful works.
You might never have heard of Corita Kent, who worked predominantly with silk screen printing, but some of her works may be familiar to you, such as the 1985 “Love” stamp commissioned by the United States Postal Service that achieved 700,000 million sales. And if you live in Boston perhaps you were lucky enough to see the original “Rainbow Swash” on a 150-foot high natural gas tank, making it the largest copyrighted work of art in the world, before it was demolished in 1992. Both of these pieces have something in common: being bright and beautiful, they conveyed a message of positivity. This was a common thread running through Corita’s works that focused on her “concerns about poverty, racism, and war, and her messages of peace and social justice continue to resonate with audiences today.”
Corita’s life as a religious sister saw her chair the art department of The Immaculate Heart College. Here she taught for 30 years and was inspirational not only in her methods but in her role of spreading her message through whatever inspired her: scripture, advertising, supermarkets, even the car wash. She encouraged this in her students, telling them to look with fresh eyes at the world around them. In fact one of her “looking assignments” instructed students to look at everything as individual, that no two things are identical, saying “Genius is looking at things in an unhabitual way.”
Corita Kent, is standing in the middle pointing out a student at Immaculate Heart College Art Department c. 1955. Photo by Fred Swartz and courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles
The inspirational nun took her students on field trips to meet other designers, such as famous husband and wife team, Ray and Charles Eames, and also to take inspiration from the more mundane. Her teaching methods “became legendary,” with clergy members being sent to participate in her classes, as did her list of rules that hung in her classroom:
Rule One: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.
Rule Two: General duties of a student—pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.
Rule Three: General duties of a teacher—pull everything out of your students.
Rule Four: Consider everything an experiment.
Rule Five: Be self-disciplined—this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.
Rule Six: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.
Rule Seven: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.
Rule Eight: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.
Rule Nine: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.
Rule Ten: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)
Hints: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything—it might come in handy later.
As much as Kent was inspirational, she was also an activist courting controversy for her avant-garde ways. Determined to share her message of love and hope, Kent toured the country and became more political, addressing the Vietnam War and humanitarian crises. And as tensions were rising in the country, there were also changes within the Church. After the Second Vatican Council closed in the mid-’60s (which sought to address how the Church should relate to the modern world), an impatient Kent wanted to implement certain changes more quickly than her local church leadership did. Always pioneering and innovative, a frustrated Kent returned to secular life in 1968, with 90 percent of her religious community following her.
Leaving the Church was not easy for Corita, considering she became a sister straight out of high school. Her strong faith had been a driving force behind so many of the messages she was trying to convey through her artwork. She continued to work in the arts but eventually succumbed to cancer, while living in Boston, at the age of 67. In 1982, the Immaculate Heart College closed but the studio in which Kent spent so much of her life dedicated to teaching has been named The Corita Art Center in memory of such a passionate and inspiring individual. The Center not only preserves Corita’s work but also tries to promote her “passion for social justice.”
Corita Kent in her apartment c. 1970. Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles
This dynamic artist, nun, activist and teacher achieved more than the works of art she left behind. She obtained the unthinkable; as a woman and a nun she made her mark in the world of contemporary art at a time when it was very male-dominated. And always ahead of her time her message of love and hope continues to be relevant today, for when we have to face the consequences of Mother Nature, such as the terrible destruction in Haiti, or continued political and social unrest throughout the world, as Corita said “flowers grow out of dark moments.”
The Corita Art Center is open Monday—Friday from 10 a.m.—4 p.m. where it is also possible to see the archives as well as buy some of Corita’s prints—just ring ahead for an appointment.
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