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The Pop Art of Sister Corita Kent in Ditchling This Summer

  • Sister Corita Kent
  • Stop the bombing, 1967
  • That they may have life, 1964
June 1, 2018
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The 1960s are marked as the decade of momentous events around the world. The American society in particular saw a change during that time, since the new generation of Baby boomers had started demanding new social modes. That was largely enforced with the development of both the underground and popular culture. The air was so filled with that scent of revolution; even within the church, which certainly was (and still is) the holder of tradition and the canons of morality, certain figures got carried away with those ideas. One of them was Sister Corita Kent.

This particular figure, a representative of the Roman Catholic Church, was a prominent activist for civil rights and an artist. Her vast production developed simultaneously with the ones of Andy Warhol or Ed Ruscha for instance, so it is not strange that from the contemporary perspective she is considered practically an adherent of the then-rising Pop Art movement.

At The Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, a retrospective of Kent’s work under the title Corita Kent: Get With The Action is being presented. The concept of the exhibition is based on the reevaluation of the domains of this passionate nun and her influence on the generations which she has nurtured at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles.

Corita Kent - Emergency use soft shoulder from 1966
Corita Kent – Emergency use soft shoulder, 1966. Photo: Josh White. Courtesy Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

The Revolutionary Nun

Sister Mary Corita Kent was without a doubt a ground-breaking figure. Aside from the religious context, her achievements should be perceived as of great cultural, social and political significance.

This charismatic cleric became the chairwoman of the art department at the Immaculate Heart College, a Los Angeles based private Catholic college, in 1964. The lectures she gave encompassed contemporary art, film, and philosophy; her the Great Men lecture series included various artists and intellectuals, from John Cage to Alfred Hitchcock. On several occasions, Kent also expressed the notable influence of the ideas of Buckminster Fuller and Charles Eames on her methodology, which had come to prominence by the early 1950s, much before she became in charge with the art department.

In the following decades, the College has earned quite a reputation as an outstanding university, especially for girls. The students were encouraged to maintain perfecting themselves professionally, so a huge number of them both female and male became rather successful educators, musicians, judges, etc.

During the sixth decade, the work of sister Corita Kent became even more political – she urged for the reformation of the College which is best expressed by the transformation of annual Mary’s Day into a community celebration. She also pledged for the world humanitarian crises, especially in regards to the Vietnam War, and her political engagement was condemned as “liberal” and “blasphemous” by the archdiocese, even calling her “a communist”. That led sister Corita Kent to a secular life. After she left, the college went on to exist for another decade only.

The rest of her life Corita Kent spent producing art. She suffered after the departure from the College, since she was quite devoted to religion. Unfortunately so, Kent had been diagnosed with cancer in 1974. She then focused fully on watercolors, with an occasional take on printmaking.

In 1986, she passed away in Massachusetts at the age of sixty-seven.

Corita Kent - Everything coming up daisies, 1968
Corita Kent – Everything coming up daisies, 1968. Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, CA

Highlights of The Exhibition

The works which sister Corita Kent has produced in the 1960s, which apparently was the most fruitful period for her, were actual screen-printed banners and  posters fulfilled with pop iconography. These bright and vibrant works captured the revolutionary spirit of the times, along with religious imagery, and were extremely politically charged.

The installment represents Kent’s work in chronological order, a period from 1952 to 1972. At the silk screen printing workshop, the artist nun experimented with various materials – from song lyrics, quotations, typography, to fragments of advertising slogans, etc. A total of forty works, from silk prints to collages, gathered for the exhibition reflect perfectly on how contemporary this peculiar sister was.

The early figurative religious art, which resonates with the museum’s permanent collection of the same, will be shown as well as sister’s works from the sixties. Those bold objects are centered around concise and straightforward political statements, as is the case with the works like For emergency use soft shoulder (1966) or That man loves (1967), just to mention the few. The compelling work which is featured as well is Mary does laugh (1964), which was produced for the mentioned Mary’s day and it shows the saint as an everyday woman shopping the groceries.

Corita Kent - Mary does laugh, 1964
Corita Kent – Mary does laugh, 1964. Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, CA

Sister Corita Kent at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

The practice of Sister Corita Kent shows that she was a devoted believer in the betterment of the society. Her achievements should be perceived as strong contributions to the emancipation and empowerment of women, so it is right to conclude that all of her doings somehow anticipated the second wave of feminism.

This exhibition, therefore, is relevant, in light of the current political upheavals in America, and the phenomena of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. The showcase as a whole emphasizes the importance of the political positioning regardless of the class, gender or religion.

Corita Kent: Get With The Action is a part of the Brighton Festival program and is installed at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft from until 14 October 2018.

For this purpose, the partners have commissioned a new work by a leading designer Morag Myerscough to produce an installation titled Belonging and inspired by the pop art and spirit of  the nun and the artist Corita Kent. It is going on tour at Your Place venues in Brighton and Love Supreme Festival, South of England Show, in Crawley, Newhaven, and Hastings Coastal Currents festival. It will be handed over to local communities to program with their own messages of peace and protest.

2018 Editors’ Tip: Come Alive!: The Spirited Art of Sister Corita

At 18, Corita Kent (1918-86) entered the Roman Catholic order of Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles, where she taught art and eventually ran the art department. After more than 30 years, at the end of the 1960s, she left the order to devote herself to making her own work. Over a 35-year-long career, she made watercolors, posters, books and banners–and most of all, serigraphs–in an accessible and dynamic style that appropriated techniques from advertising, consumerism and graffiti. The earliest, which she began showing in 1951, borrowed phrases and depicted images from the Bible; by the 1960s, she was using song lyrics and publicity slogans as raw material. Eschewing convention, she produced cheap, readily available multiples, including a postage stamp.

Featured images: Portrait of Sister Corita Kent; Corita Kent – That they may have life, 1964, courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, CA; Corita Kent – Stop the bombing, 1967, courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, CA. All images courtesy the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft.