Words by Aaron Rose
Corita Kent was an artist, teacher, philosopher, political activist, and possibly one of the most innovative and unusual pop artists of the 1960’s.
What’s perhaps even more incredible, however, is that she was a Catholic nun. Corita Kent was born Frances Kent in Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1918. As a young child, her family moved to Los Angeles, where she then graduated from Immaculate Heart College in 1941, and soon after began teaching at a grade school in British Columbia. In 1946 she returned to Immaculate Heart to teach art. Teaching and creating art would become her career path for most of her life. She was a woman driven by a creative instinct so powerful that it transcended the circumstances from which her career sprung.
In the early 1950’s, Corita studied and received a master’s degree in art history from the University of Southern California. Though she was a multifaceted artist who practiced painting, photography, typography and graphic design, her real love was serigraphy, particularly the art of silkscreen printmaking. At that time, silkscreen was considered primarily a sign painter’s medium and not used much in fine art circles, but Corita instantly fell in love with the astonishing effects of combining words and text with colourful abstract images. She also loved that through screenprinting, she was able to produce large quantities of beautiful images on a humble budget. Corita was very much a populist in every sense. She chose to ignore the mechanisms of the art world and what she considered to be an “elitist system of distribution” in favour of pricing her editions inexpensively so anybody could afford them. She would sell her works at church gatherings, community centres, fairs and other venues where a diverse amount of the public would have access to them.
All of this activity did not go unnoticed. Her artwork, coupled with her unorthodox leadership of the Immaculate Heart art department, brought fame and with it, crowds of visitors. The famous architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller described his visit to the department as “among the most fundamentally inspiring experiences of my life.” The Immaculate Heart art department also became legendary because of the illustrious figures, that by Corita’s invitation, all came to speak there. Guest lecturers included luminaries such as designers Charles and Ray Eames, musician John Cage, graphic designer Saul Bass and film director Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1962, possibly pre-dating Andy Warhol, Corita began using popular culture as raw material for her work. Her screen prints often incorporated the archetypal product brands of American consumerism alongside spiritual texts. Her design process involved taking an original advertising graphic, perhaps something she found at a local shop, and then appropriating it to suit her idea. Many times she would tear, rip or crumple the image then re-photograph it. She frequently 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 as the textual focal point of her work.
She claimed to always admire the activists who were able to protest loudly, march for a cause, or who could handle being incarcerated. This sort of protest was not in her nature, but she was able to accomplish her own form of protest through her art. Her cries for peace during the Vietnam War, however, were not always received with open arms. Not surprisingly, Corita’s teaching techniques, coupled with the free-flowing creativity and controversial subject matter in her personal art, didn’t always sit well with the church. There was tension and frequent clashes with the Archdiocese. Her rebellious order encouraged members “to do their own thing,” such as wearing street clothing and, in her case, designing prints in support of various social and political causes.
During the late 60s, the church, like the rest of the country, was going through significant changes, which angered, threatened, and tormented many of the faithful. To some, Corita’s art became a representation of all this unrest and it infuriated certain conservative church leaders including Cardinal McIntyre, the head of the local Los Angeles archdiocese. Corita was considered dangerous. McIntrye accused her of being a “guerilla with a paintbrush.”
In 1968, after over 30 years as an Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister, and due to the immense pressure she was under, she began to ponder a leave of absence. Perhaps she was hoping to resurrect her drooping spirit. She left the order in 1969 and moved to Boston, where she devoted herself entirely to making art. She lived there quietly, carrying out commissions for murals and other works.
In the early 1970’s, the artist developed cancer, and though her doctor gave her only six months to live, she knew that she had major art pieces to accomplish before she died. Corita entered an immensely productive period where she created several hundred serigraph designs for posters, book covers, and murals. Her work from this time includes a 150-foot-high natural gas tank in the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston and the 1985 “Love” stamp, reportedly the best-selling postage stamp in history. Seven years later, on September 18, 1986, Corita succumbed to cancer and passed away.