Corita Kent

1918-1986

Corita Kent was born  Frances Elizabeth Kent. When she became a sister of the Order of Immaculate Heart of Mary, she took the name Sister Mary Corita. Kent was an influential artist and head of the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. She was dubbed the “Pop Art nun” by the press. In the 1960s, her work took a secular turn, mixing images from the civil rights movement with politically charged slogans.  

She became a nun at age 18 and was a part of the Immaculate Heat Community for thirty years. She taught children on an Inuit Reservation in British Columbia before obtaining her B.A. at the College in 1941.  Later in 1951 she received her M.A. at the University of Southern California. As an art teacher at Immaculate Heart, she taught herself how to silk screen, and silk screening became her primary medium. Kent made print designs for posters, murals, and book covers.  A 1951 print, “The Lord is With Thee,” won first prize in printmaking at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, Art. 

She embraced different liberal movements including civil rights, women’s rights, and protests against the Vietnam War, and she incorporated them into her art. In 1968, Kent abandoned her religious vows after thirty years of service to the Catholic Church because of negative criticism from the Los Angeles archdiocese.  Cardinal McIntyre, a right-wing member of the American Catholic hierarchy, accused her work of being blasphemous. She returned to a secular life as Corita Kent. After her leaving, the entire order later followed suit to became a nondenominational congregation. 

When she was a nun, her early art started out as figurative with semi-abstract touches.  Her work drew negative responses from the male-dominated officials of the Catholic Church. In time her art changed as she used images from contemporary culture.  In 1962, she saw the exhibition of Andy Warhol’s paintings of Campbell’s soup cans. Her response resulted in her making her first mature print, “someday is now.”  It consisted of three rows of four big dots, irregular handmade disks in red, green, black, blue, and yellow. This was inspired by the spotted Wonder Bread package and was her bridge between pure abstraction and everyday subject matter. The flat dots had religious significance as each dot could represent the Host, consumed in the Mass, which was the body of Christ for believers.  The number of them – twelve- was significant as they could stand for the Twelve Apostles who broke bread with Jesus at the Last Supper.

A Pop artist, a key mentor to her was artist Charles Eames. Kent went on to mentor Sister Karen Boccalero, who founded the Chicano art center Self Help Graphics & Art in East L.A.

Kent created eye-popping screen prints and drawings that combined appropriated texts and logos from popular culture with excerpts of writing from her favorite authors. She used inventive typography to encourage deeper readings of banal slogans.

Her 1967 screen print,  “Things go better with,” paired the famous Coca-Cola jingle with a hand-scrawled passage by activist priest Rev. Daniel Berrigan, recasting it as a call for “justice, peace, unity,and love.”  The fluorescent colors and distorted letters underscored the radical nature of Kent’s simple message at a time of intense national division over the Vietnam War. In 1969, her print, “love your brother,” shows photographs of Martin Luther King overlaid with the words, “The king is dead. Love your brother.”

Kent produced a series of 29 prints “Heroes and Sheroes” that honored civil rights leaders. One of these prints was her “It can be said of them” and featured images of Martin Luther King, the Kennedy brothers, and this excerpt of E.B. White’s poem: “It can be said of him, as of few men in like position, that he did not fear the weather and did not turn his sails, but instead, challenged the wind itself to improve its direction and to cause it to blow more softly and more kindly over the world and its people.”  Her works and these words inspired contemporary New York artist Jeffrey Gibson. Of Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, Gibson’s latest geometric patterned wall hangings, similarly entitled “It Can Be Said of Them,” is not only a reflection of traditional indigenous work but also the art of Corita Kent.

The Los Angeles City Council approved historic-cultural monument status for Kent’s former studio, a humble storefront in L.A. that in recent years had been inhabited by a dry cleaner. She is one of the few women to be honored in such a way by L.A.

Her work is in the permanent collections of the Fogg Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and others.

More here.

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