Corita Kent and the Immaculate Heart Art Department
Corita Kent was a nun, artist and art teacher who taught at the Immaculate Heart College from 1947, and was the Chair of the Art Department from 1964 to 1968. She gained world-wide recognition for her bold political silkscreen graphics during the 1960s and 1970s. It is her art and the way she lived her life that I find most inspiring. She was a charismatic person and her spirit shined through in her art, Texts, type, letterforms, her own handwriting are what makes up her best-known work, and her spirit is what made her art powerful. She was commited to social justice and peace, and made political statements through her art calling for civil rights, feminism, and an end to the Vietnam war. She later on designed for Amnesty International, the International Walk for Hunger, and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
In 1951 Corita learned serigraphy from the wife of the artist Alfredo Martinez and began working primarily in silkscreen. At that time, serigraphy was consicered a sign painter’s medium and was not respected or accepted into some juried exhibitions.1
She considered her audience and what medium she chose to work in made a statement about her values and commitment to social service.
“I am a print maker…a very democratic form, since it enables me to produce a quantity of original art for those who cannot afford to purchase high-priced at… the distribution of these prints to everyday places of work pleases me, and I hope they will give people a life…more fun out of life.”2
In 1952, her influential and inpiring mentor, Sister Magdalen Mary (Margaret Martin), entered Corita’s print, “the lord is with thee” in the Los Angeles County Museum competition and the California State Fair, where it won first place, giving her a boost of confidence as an artist. Magdalen Mary had a large part in shaping the Immacualte Heart Art Department and mentored Corita to become a loved sought after teacher and artist that she became. Corita’s early work was influenced by Abstract Expressionist painting with religous themes. She began to incorporate text into her work using phrases and depicting scenes from the Bible. In the 1960s, pop culture aesthetics dominated her work. This description of how she worked and gathered materials is not easy to make an artistically and politically powerful statemtent the way Corita did.
She reframed the language of advertising slogans, song lyrics, poetry to create deeper spiritual meaning or upliftment, or a call for social justice. She borrowed from eveything around her, news articles, magazines such as Time and Newsweek, street signs and store front street advertising as well as theological debate and philosophy. She created new forms and ways of looking at words and letters. She layered, cut up, collaged and distorted type, and used bold fields of color to create her compositions. Corita used this style to create the Immaculate Heart Community newsletter, using newspaper clippings in a ransom note style; typewritten essays are cut up into individual words, phrases and paragraphs and scattered across pages, interconnecting and overlapping with image. The flyers she designed for her “one-nun exhibitions”, curiously, resemble Jamie Reid’s designs for the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks.3
“I got the ideas of there being different possibilities of using letter forms. And I always think of the letter forms as much as objects as people or flowers or other subject matter.”4
The rules she wrote for the Immacualte Heart College Art department are most inspiring, and must have created a supportive environment for students to have the courage to experiement and create art. The rules could also be applied to living life as well, and from learning more about her, she must have been a very vibrant and inspiring person who challenged the status quo as a nun, teacher, artist and activist.
1. Ault, Julie. “Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita.” Four Corners Books, London., 16. Originally published, Kent, Corita, “Art is to be Enjoyed,” The Lamp, November 1965, 19.
2. Ault, Julie. “Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita.” Four Corners Books, London., 16. Originally published, Bill Bagnall, “Corita at the De Cordova Museum/A Retrospective Exhibition,” (Lincoln, MA: De Cordova Museum, 1980), brochure, np.
3. Ault, Julie. “Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita.” Four Corners Books, London., 30.
4. Ault, Julie. “Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita.” Four Corners Books, London., 20. Originally from Kent, Corita. “Los Angeles Art Community: Group Portrait, Corita Kent. Transcript of oral history, 1976 by Bernard Galm. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Library, UCLA, 149.
All images from: Ault, Julie, “Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita.” Four Corners Books, London.