Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Sr. Corita Kent and Her Messages of Love and Politics

The art of Sr. Corita Kent came at a time when American culture and consumerism was at an all time high. The Pop Art movement was in full swing, and much of the art world was mesmerized by the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha. That a nun could sweep into their fold and enjoy their comraderie and artistic support was surely rare, but Sr. Corita was indeed a rare individual.

She became known as an artist, educator, and advocate for social justice. Her work incorporated advertising images and slogans, popular song lyrics, biblical verses, and literature. Throughout the ‘60s, her work became increasingly political; urging viewers to consider difficult subjects like poverty, racism, injustice, the Vietnam War and humanitarian crises. Her artwork, with its messages of love and peace, was particularly popular during the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.

Frances Elizabeth Kent aka Sr. Mary Corita, or Corita Kent, was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1918. Her family soon moved to Los Angeles, California where Corita attended Catholic Girls High School—now called Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto. She took classes at Otis College of Art and Design and Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts) before receiving her B.A. degree at Immaculate Heart College. Afterward, she entered the religious order Immaculate Heart of Mary and took her vows, becoming Sr. Mary Corita.
Corita was interested in teaching and briefly taught at a primary school in British Columbia. Later, she became head of the art department at Immaculate Heart College. She received her M.A. degree in art history from University of Southern California, and it was while she was in graduate school that Corita started to make prints and specialized her efforts in screen-printing. The medium was popular for the time because of the Pop art movement and the work of Warhol. Corita saw its ease to create unique messages and the multiplicity of the medium a natural for communicating to the masses. Corita also wanted her art to be affordable and widely available. It seemed she had found her niche.

Corita and her work was central to an art movement famous for celebrating kitsch and consumer culture.

Her classes at Immaculate Heart were an avant-garde mecca for prominent, ground-breaking artists and inventors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Cage, Saul Bass, Buckminster Fuller and Charles & Ray Eames. By the early 1950s, she had such a unique and well-known aesthetic that clergy members from all over the country were sent to be educated at Immaculate Heart College.

Corita's prints often incorporated the brands of American consumerism alongside spiritual texts. Her design process involved appropriating an original advertising graphic; for example, she would tear, rip, or crumble the image, then re-photograph it. She often used grocery store signage, texts from scripture, newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and writings from literary greats such as Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, and Albert Camus.

Corita elevated the banal to the holy. Her earliest work was mostly iconographic, drawing inspiration from the Bible and other religious sources. Her faith is evident in the colors she chooses and the sources she quotes. Over time, Kent developed a rich Pop art iconography for the depiction of Catholic subjects.

Corita’s art has at times looks haphazard– her handwriting is messy and sometimes illegible, the printed words bend and fold on themselves, the colors splash into each other. She liked the idea of printmaking as the overlap between precision and free form color and shape. Her collages took popular images, often with twisted or reversed words, to comment on the political unrest of the time period, many of which could have been found at any number of marches or demonstrations, some of which she attended herself.

Dubbed the “joyous revolutionary” by artist Ben Shahn, she lectured and appeared on television and radio talk shows across the country. Over her career, she created nearly 800 editioned images, thousands of watercolors, and did numerous public and private commissions.

Corita is commissioned to create a banner for the Vatican Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.
The Los Angeles Times names Corita one of nine Women of the Year.
Corita is on the cover of the Christmas issue of Newsweek Magazine.
Corita took a sabbatical in 1968, then decided she did not want to return to the order, or to teaching, but she remained close with the Immaculate Heart Community the rest of her life.

Corita's repository of art is held at the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles, and at Harvard University. Her work is included in some of the most important museums in the world; Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Harvard University, the National Gallery of Art, the Centre Pompidou and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Corita moved to Boston in 1969 where she continued with her art until her death in 1986. Overall, her work remained hopeful and uplifting. Her design for a postage stamp "Love" was accepted and printed in the 1980s. Over 700 million stamps have been sold thus far. Truly this artist had a lot of messages to impart to the world. We are fortunate that her work is enjoying a resrugence of interest from art historians and critics who now see her as a revolutionary figure in the pop Art movement. Her messages about social injustice and war and peace are as timely today as when they they were first created.

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