With Brexit looming and all kinds of global strife taking center stage, there’s perhaps no better time for the first London exhibition of the work of Corita Kent. The activist nun’s career as an artist, teacher, and designer coincided with the second half of the 20th century’s most tumultuous era, and her work confronted the issues of the day with bravery and resolve— fusing art with everyday life and favoring joy over despair. As a teacher, and later head of the art department at Los Angeles’ Immaculate Heart College (IHC), she also inspired others to do the same.
“Corita Kent: Power Up,” currently on view at the House of Illustration (through May 2019), is the largest ever exhibition of Kent’s work in the UK. Olivia Ahmad, the exhibition’s curator, wanted to celebrate Kent’s timeless message about “the triumph of the human spirit.”
“She was called ‘the joyous revolutionary’ by artist Ben Shahn,” says Ahmad. “It’s a perfect way to describe the kind of hopeful resistance she embodies, and it’s particularly resonant at a time when our political discourse and online debate often feels so toxic and divisive.”
Kent, especially during the ’60s when she was at her most prolific, used art to protest and comment on the state of the world around her. In both her art and her life, Kent confronted issues such as the Vietnam War, poverty, racial injustice, and gender inequality, while generally challenging the rigid conservatism of the day—something she was especially aware of as prevalent in Catholicism.
“Kent was called ‘the joyous revolutionary’ by artist Ben Shahn. It’s a perfect way to describe the kind of hopeful resistance she embodies.”
Kent was born Frances Elizabeth Kent in Fort Dodge, Iowa, to intensely Catholic parents who later moved to Hollywood in 1923 where Frances and her five siblings would grow up. Living in sunny, progressive California and on the fringes of a chaotic, exciting city had a significant impact on the direction of Kent’s life and work. Both artistic and deeply religious from a young age, she would find the perfect place to nurture both these passions in tandem. In 1936, after a brief summer spent at the Otis Arts Institute, she entered into the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, taking Sister Mary Corita as her religious name and donning the traditional black and white habit of a nun.
Located in the diverse neighborhood of Los Feliz near downtown L.A, and known as intellectually rigorous, liberal, and arts-focused, IHC proved an ideal place for Kent. The first rule in her now famous Art Department Rules was ‘find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.’ For Kent, Immaculate Heart Sisterhood and its art department was exactly that, and she stayed there for 32 years. After getting her bachelors in 1941, she undertook art and design studies at various other Californian universities and traveled north for a stint to teach for the sisterhood at a primary school in British Columbia. Soon, however, she was called back to IHC to join the art department as a teacher, which she did part-time while completing her Master’s degree in art history at the University of Southern California.
It was at USC in 1951 that Kent discovered and embraced silkscreen printing, a move that would prove momentous for her practice. Following an intensive afternoon being taught the basics by Maria Sodi de Ramos Martínez, the widow of Mexican artist Alfredo Martínez, Kent experimented with serigraphy and instantly embraced the silkscreen process. She considered it “very democratic” thanks to its ability to “produce a quantity of original art for those who cannot afford to purchase high-priced art.”
Kent’s screen-prints from the ’50s are very different from the bold and colorful ’60s work for which she is now best known. They were figurative, densely layered, and elaborate, and usually featured religious figures or iconography. Her influences at this time were as varied as Abstract Expressionism, Folk Art, Ben Shahn, and The Watts Towers constructed by artist Simon Rodia in South Central L.A. (which Kent would later take students to visit and photograph). Although not as radical as her ’60s work, Kent’s striking, modern art-influenced early prints nevertheless put her at odds with the Catholic Church, which favored purely realistic art.
Kent said she wanted her art to “give people a lift” and help them get “more fun out of life.”
One element of her work that has been there since the very beginning is text. Kent had always been a voracious reader, and she began to combine words—first calligraphy and later typography—and image in her work from the mid-’50s onwards. This move suited the intellectual underpinning at IHC, where students majoring in art had to minor in english. Theology was, of course, an influence on Kent’s text choices, but so too were literature, poetry, philosophy, and activism.
In 1962, Kent saw work by Andy Warhol for the first time, and her aesthetic changed markedly, becoming bolder, flatter, more abstract and brighter, often with saturated, almost fluorescent, colors. Her new style was so successful that it became became known as “nun art,” and was often imitated. Her adherence to the Pop Art aesthetic was well suited to her joyous aims: Kent said she wanted her art to “give people a lift” and help them get “more fun out of life.”
Pop Art’s celebration of the urban everyday also empowered Kent to introduce more quotidian sources into her text works. During the ’60s, she began to incorporate lyrics from pop songs, advertising slogans, and snippets of text seen on signs and packaging into her work, often pairing them with religious text. It was a move that elevated the ordinary to the spiritual, and became a frequent theme in Kent’s art and teaching. She found delight in the commonplace, and believed that the divine could be seen anywhere, even amidst the chaos of the modern city. Kent often took her students on urban expeditions—even day-long trips to gas stations and car lots—armed with cameras and viewfinders.
Not everyone felt that Kent’s artistic synthesis of Catholicism with everyday life was appropriate, however. Despite the reforms introduced at the Second Vatican Council initiated by Pope John XXIII in 1962, the Catholic church remained conservative. This traditionalism was especially rife in the Los Angeles archdiocese, lead by the deeply orthodox James Francis McIntyre, who was often in dispute with the liberal Immaculate Heart Sisterhood. He found Kent’s works sacrilegious, and in particular the piece mary does laugh (1964). In the center of the piece, Kent hand wrote the declaration: “Mary does laugh; and she sings and runs and wears bright orange, today she’d probably do her shopping at the Market Basket.”
The Market Basket in the inscription was a reference to the supermarket next door to IHC, and the text was paraphrasing a student, Marcia Petty, who was reflecting on the 1964 Pop-themed “Mary’s Day” parade. Kent, who has described the IHC parades before her leadership as “a very dismal affair,” wanted them to be more celebratory and to “make Mary relevant for her time.” The result was a riotous affair with students marching while holding colorful banners and placards, tackling issues such as hunger and poverty, and appropriating packaging to do so. Under Kent, Mary’s Day was akin to a proto-happening, breaking down the barriers between life, art, and theater.
Kent’s detractors, of course, we horrified by these unconventional parades. The 1964 parade’s partial focus on food—which in the words of Marcia Petty, helped to “re-establish the fact that the ordinary is beautiful”—would lead to Kent’s most controversial screenprint: the juiciest tomato of all (1964). It included the text “Mary mother is the juiciest tomato of all,” a reference to a letter from her friend Sam Eisenstein, who had repurposed the phrase from a Del Monte tin of tomatoes in his description of the parade. Kent intended for the allusion of Mary as a tomato to be an exuberant affirmation of her glory, perfection, beauty, and ability to give spiritual nourishment. But to Cardinal McIntyre, it was sacrilegious, its unintended sexual connotations an affront. He banned it from being shown publicly.
The message, sent loud and clear, was that the men in positions of power in the Catholic Church—not the nuns—were in control of the Virgin Mary and how she could be portrayed and seen. Kent’s work was just one of the Archbishop’s problems with the progressive sisterhood located in his diocese, but her fame made it one of his focal points. By 1967, McIntyre had succeeded in banning the sisterhood from teaching in the city’s Catholic schools and sought a declaration from the Vatican to curb their liberal reforms. Rome sided with their Cardinal, and by 1970 the majority of the order’s 400 sisters had renounced their vows and reorganized the sisterhood as a lay group called the Immaculate Heart Community.
Kent, who had become chair of IHC’s art department in 1964 when her mentor Sister Mag departed the role, went on a sabbatical in 1968. She decided after two months that she would renounce her vows and never return to IHC. The move was partly linked to the sisterhood’s strife with the powers that be, but it was also highly personal. One of Kent’s ‘Art Department Rules’ declared that students should “pull everything out of your teacher,” and by 1968 Kent had grown exhausted by the struggles of balancing teaching, running a department, going on grueling lecture tours, and taking on ever-growing private commissions with her desire to create for herself. The creation of new screenprints had generally been confined to the summer holidays when class was off. On her sabbatical, she witnessed a quieter life with more freedom, and she decided that it was what she wanted for her future.
After leaving the sisterhood, Kent moved to Boston and lived alone for the first time in her life. During this time, she continued to create her screenprints while co-authoring and designing books. She also relied on commercial design projects such as magazine adverts for Group W, the broadcasting department of Westinghouse, screen-printed decorative panels for computer manufacturer Digital Equipment Corporation, a giant mural of a rainbow on a Boston Gas Company tank (the largest copyrighted artwork in the world at the time), and book covers for Daniel Berrigan. (Berrigan, a close friend and inspiration to Kent, was one of the Catonsville Nine, a group of Catholic priests arrested and imprisoned for the burning of Vietnam draft cards in 1968.)
Kent’s most prominent project, the ‘love’ stamp designed for the U.S. Postal Authority, was released in an edition of around 700 million in 1985. She died a year later, after battling cancer for the third time since 1974, and left her estate to the Immaculate Heart Community to manage. Later the Corita Art Center was founded by the Community to preserve and promote Kent’s unique legacy. Over the last 20 years, thanks to exhibitions, publications, and online interest, an artist once conspicuously missing from both the canon of art and design history—due, perhaps, to her gender, sisterhood, or design that embraced the ordinary—is rightly garnering the attention and recognition she deserves.