Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives
A Pop art nun? What sounds like a bizarre combination resulted in a heavenly blend of positivity and bright uplifting colors. You’re probably familiar with Pop artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Ed Ruscha. But what about Corita Kent, the unlikely female Pop art phenomenon of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Discover the artist, educator, and advocate’s remarkable story.
Born Frances Elizabeth Kent in Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1918, as a young child her family moved to Los Angeles, CA. At the age of 18, she entered the Roman Catholic order of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Hollywood, CA. Frances Elizabeth Kent became Sister Mary Corita. An order devoted to Mary, all the nuns had a variation of Mary in their name but in conversing with each other they frequently dropped it. Therefore, she was well known as Corita. She finished her BA at the Immaculate Heart College (IHC) and was assigned to teach primary school in British Columbia. Just a few years later, however, she was called back to the IHC to join the faculty to teach art. She also began graduate school at USC where she experimented and learned silkscreen as a medium.
In 1962, Corita had two transformational events occur: one artistic and one religious. First, she saw the now legendary exhibition of Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans in LA. It was an epiphany for her as she later said, “It shook me up. He’s telling us what life is like for him… Maybe we need something to shake us up a little bit.” The second event was the reform program initiated by the Second Vatican Council in Rome, or the Vatican II, which called for major reforms in the church to encourage engagement with the modern age. Corita saw that her art could be useful in the church’s spiritual revolution, and she was commissioned to create the banner for the Vatican Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York the following year.
Combining all of her passions in life, her artistic style all of a sudden made sense. She delved into the Pop art world with her own religious twist and created a new visual language for spirituality. Where Pop art is often cold and brittle, Corita’s work was friendly and familiar. She got inspiration wherever she looked: street signs, grocery stores, music, and literature. This contemporary nun even brought Beatlemania to the church! She frequently took students out of the classroom to get ideas for their next projects, telling them to look with fresh eyes at the world around them. She loved letterform and type, always including a meaningful phrase in her prints. Instead of simply writing out the text, however, she flipped it sideways, wrote backwards, or layered it, making the viewer find the message and turning it into a puzzle. When asked why her art relied solely on words she said, “I think a picture with all the words is as much a picture as something with abstract or recognizable shapes… I really love the look of letters- the letters themselves become a kind of subject matter even apart from their meaning- like apples or oranges for artists.”
Once she had fine-tuned her artistic style, she quickly got recognition for her work. In 1966 she was one of the Los Angeles Times “Women of the Year,” and the following year she was featured on the cover of Newsweek as the model of the “Modern Nun.” She was even profiled in “100 American Women of Accomplishments” in Harper’s Bazaar.
The exhaustion of teaching and maintaining her now booming art career, however, took its toll. She decided to take a years sabbatical in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and had every intention of returning to the Sisters. During her time away, however, she ultimately decided not only to leave teaching but also the IHM order. She moved to Boston and became a full time working artist. She was already a well-established artist so she decided to keep the name Corita Kent, though she never legally changed it.
Corita’s first big commission after leaving the order was from the Boston Gas Company to design a gas tank. The “Rainbow Swash” became the largest copyrighted work in the world! Much like what Ed Ruscha did to make the Hollywood sign an icon of Pop art, she wanted to give Boston, her new home, its own monument. Now a Boston landmark, the tank still sits along the interstate and has thousands of commuters who pass by it daily. Later, she adapted the same design from the gas tank when she was asked to create the LOVE stamp that was circulated by the United States Postal Service, which sold over 700 million copies and became one of her most well-known images.
Her work continued to evolve and explore themes more in depth, including those advocating for social justice. She never spoke out or protested herself, but instead used her artwork to condemn a range of topics such as the Vietnam War, poverty, hunger, and the oppression of African Americans. She said of her activism, “The idea of using works with visual forms and using just short passages is often a way to help awaken people to do something they may not be aware of, rather than enclosing it in a book or making a speech about it.” Some powerful phrases she used in her work included “Make love not war,” “Why not give a damn about your fellow man,” and her “American Sampler” that spelled “AMERICAN,” “ASSASSINATION,” “VIOLENCE,” and “WHY” all mixed together. The artwork has such a timeless quality, you could easily imagine it being reflective of today’s issues (almost 40 years later!) because of the simple and powerful messages. The Corita Art Center even has a free downloadable protest sign (if you’re in that kind of mood).
One of the most important aspects of Corita’s art was that it was affordable and accessible to everyone, partly why she enjoyed the medium of silkscreen. She never editioned her artwork and, compared to the market, her price changes were negligible despite the amount of acclaim she received. Editioning the work is when the artist numbers the print, normally located just below the image on the left, and the number correlates to the first and last prints made. It looks like a fraction with the top number representing what number the print is and the bottom number being the total number of prints in the edition. The lower numbers are valued higher because as the work gets printed the ink quality can change, meaning the first prints are closer to the vision of the artist. This is why you will not find numbers on any of Corita’s prints!
After a few bouts with
cancer, Corita passed away at the age of 67. In her lifetime she created over
800 silkscreens, took on public art commissions, worked on ad campaigns, wrote
and designed books, produced films, and taught hundreds of students. Entering
into the Pop art scene, a male dominated and static world, she flipped it on
its head, quite literally, and shared her warmth and positivity with all. The
Immaculate Heart College eventually closed its doors but is now where the
Corita Art Center is located, and they continue to share Corita Kent’s story