Hello again, everyone. I’ve been keeping my head down this last month clearing some big projects off my desk. Lately I’ve been thinking about the work of Sister Corita Kent, whose artwork I’ve always admired but haven’t studied in years. Rather than a “Friday Finds” review of news from the art world (I suspect I’m not alone in my desire to hide out from the news), I thought it might be more satisfying to feature a profile of Corita Kent’s life and brave, bright, uplifting artwork. Much of the following biographical information was sourced from the Corita Art Center’s excellent website about their namesake (http://www.corita.org/index.html). The Corita Art Center in Los Angeles was created to maintain and exhibit the collection of prints, paintings, and copyrights willed to the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary by Kent.
Corita Kent was born in 1918 in Fort Dodge, Iowa as Frances Kent and was raised in Los Angeles, California. At the age of 18 she became a nun and joined the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, where she took the name Sister Mary Corita.
She graduated from Immaculate Heart College in 1941 and later worked there as an art professor, eventually becoming Chairman of the Art Department in 1964. Her formal education also included earning a master’s degree in art history from the University of Southern California.
Kent’s leadership as head of the Art Department fostered a Renaissance environment enlivened by visits from pioneering contemporary artists, designers and musicians including Charles and Ray Eames, Buckminster Fuller, and John Cage. Artist Ben Shahn dubbed Kent a “joyous revolutionary.” Contrary to the withdrawn life one might expect for a nun, Kent lectured widely, appeared frequently in media interviews, and was on the cover of Newsweek in 1967.
Kent’s “Rules” for the Immaculate Heart College Art Department have become legendary in their own right. Sometimes misattributed as originating from John Cage, who contributed to their popularization and whose quoted statement forms the last rule, the list of 10 Rules upends traditional teaching pedagogy and gives a glimpse into Kent’s vibrant personality. Brain Pickings published an excellent article about the rules in 2012 that is well worth the read (https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/08/10/10-rules-for-students-and-teachers-john-cage-corita-kent/) I have transcribed Kent’s Rules below:
"Rule 1: Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.
Rule 2: General duties of a student: pull everything out of your teacher. Pull everything out of your fellow students.
Rule 3: General duties of a teacher: pull everything out of your students.
Rule 4: Consider everything an experiment.
Rule 5: 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 6: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.
Rule 7: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.
Rule 8: Don’t try to create and analyse at the same time. They’re different processes. [This is my personal favorite]
Rule 9: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.
Rule 10: 'We’re breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.' John Cage.
Helpful 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.
There should be new rules next week."
Kent’s preferred artistic medium was printmaking, and in her silkscreen prints she directly engaged with controversial contemporary issues. Utilizing Biblical passages and other sayings combined with her bold, graphic style (Kent’s work has often been compared to Andy Warhol), her powerful compositions offered stark critiques of current events such as the Vietnam War. In response to those who were offended by her artwork, Kent said, “I am not brave enough to not pay my income tax and risk going to jail. But I can say rather freely what I want to say with my art.” Many of her works still feel shocking to view over 50 years after their creation.
In 1968, facing pressure and disapproval from local church elders over the Order's recent reforms such as conducting services in English rather than Latin and the wearing of secular clothes by nuns, Kent decided to leave the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to concentrate fully on her art. She moved to Boston, Massachusetts and created over 400 works until her death from cancer in 1986. She continued to use her talents in support of causes and organizations that were important to her such as Amnesty International. In a 2015 interview with NPR, Corita Art Center Director Alexandra Carrera stated "She was directing people. And rather than just standing back and saying 'This is what's going wrong, and I'm just showing you guys because I'm so cool and I'm not going to be part of it,' she was really asking people to engage. And I think that that is a more popular message today than it was 20 or 30 years ago." (http://www.npr.org/2015/01/08/375856633/a-nun-inspired-by-warhol-the-forgotten-pop-art-of-sister-corita-kent)
Below I have collected a small group of images of Kent’s work to help provide a brief introduction to her portfolio. The Corita Art Center has many more works displayed online on their website for those who would like to explore her work in greater depth (http://www.corita.org/index.html). When feeling besieged by our current times, I hope that learning about this unlikely activist who spread her message of peace and joy through her silkscreens might help provide an inspiring example of the many paths we have open to us for building a stronger society.
For Further Reading:
The Corita Art Center has a wide range of terrific resources on their website: http://www.corita.org/
"A Nun Inspired By Warhol: The Forgotten Pop Art of Sister Corita Kent," a 2015 feature on NPR: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/08/375856633/a-nun-inspired-by-warhol-the-forgotten-pop-art-of-sister-corita-kent
"Corita Kent and the Language of Pop," an online exhibition accompanying a show at the Harvard Art Museum: http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/visit/exhibitions/4830/corita-kent-and-the-language-of-pop
"Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent," an online exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum: http://www.warhol.org/CoritaKent/