In the Pop Art canon, Corita Kent may not be as well known as Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. During her lifetime, however, she was a household name. Kent, known as Sister Mary Corita when she was part of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order of nuns, appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1967. She was commissioned to paint a 140-foot tall gas tank in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood in 1971. Commonly known as the "Rainbow Swash," it's reportedly the largest piece of copyrighted art in the world. In 1985, one year before her death from cancer, she designed the "Love" stamp for the U.S. Postal Service that would adorn snail mail for years to follow.
Kent stood out in the Pop Art movement for work that was sometimes playful, and at other times profoundly political. She took inspiration from Wonder Bread packaging and L.A. street signs, but also made work that commented on the Watts Uprising and the Vietnam War. She quoted Psalms as well as The Beatles.
On a high school campus with more than a century of history, Kent's legacy is preserved to share with younger generations.
Tucked inside Immaculate Heart High School bordering the Los Feliz neighborhood in L.A., the Corita Art Center is located near the Western Avenue parking lot entrance. It's open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but it's quite small and parking is limited. It's best to make an appointment beforehand.
When I met with Nellie Scott, the Director of the Corita Art Center, we started with a photo of the Immaculate Heart of Mary mother house, near the entrance of the building. It's where she usually begins tours. The house was torn down in the early 1970s, but it sat for years at this site and the photo points to the beginnings of the Immaculate Heart Community in Los Angeles, which is a crucial part of Kent's story.
Known primarily as educators, the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters established their convent and school back in 1906. "Education was always the cornerstone of what they were doing, even when they originally started," says Scott. Born Frances Elizabeth Kent in 1918, she was a child when her family moved from Iowa to Los Angeles. She joined the IHM order after high school, adopted the name Sister Mary Corita and continued her education. After a brief stint teaching in British Columbia, she returned to Los Angeles, where she began teaching at Immaculate Heart College while working on her master's degree at USC. Early on in her career, Kent gravitated towards screen printing and received recognition for her work. In 1952, she won first prize in Los Angeles County and California State Fair competitions.
"When we talk about printmaking, in general, it's very democratic," says Scott. "We see it as a very accessible process." That democratization of art was part of Kent's process. Scott points to one piece that was a collaboration with one of her students. Both signed their names. She hand signed her pieces and didn't number them, as you might normally see with prints. Scott explains that this was a conceptual component to the art that was ahead of its time. "She doesn't want one to be valued more than the other," Scott explains.
Within her religious community, Kent had a mentor, Sister Magdalen Mary, who was also an artist. The two traveled and explored the art world together, with the burgeoning Pop Art movement going on to impact what Kent would do in the 1960s. Scott points out how Kent's work evolved visually at this time. She would, essentially, sample from across the cultural landscape, weaving song lyrics and lines of poetry into her pieces. She incorporated photography into her work and played with typography. "We often tell our younger visitors, Photoshop didn't exist," Scott says.
A lot of her work was inspired by Los Angeles itself. "She would take students out with a viewfinder," Scott says, referring to the process as "analog Instagram." Sometimes, they would look for inspiration in the street signs, or the packaging of products at a local store. But Kent was also teaching young artists to look deeper.
"She taught her students how to see," Scott says. "You're looking at the beauty of something, but also the larger injustices of what's happening in the environment, specifically in the '60s in Los Angeles. When you look at what was happening with civil rights and the Vietnam War, all of these things that were part of the conversation, and the conversation here on campus as well."
In the late 1960s, Kent took a sabbatical and ultimately left her order. She moved to Boston and continued making art. At this time, she created a prolific body of work, including the "Heroes and Sheroes" series, that took a decidedly political turn. In "phil and dan," she features Philip and Daniel Berrigan, two priests who were known for their protest of the Vietnam War. She incorporated media images, like the covers of Newsweek and Life in "News of the Week," for pieces that commented on current events and injustice. She continued to incorporate her faith into her work as well.
Kent's art was steeped in social justice, showing a deep commitment to the betterment of humanity as the decades past. In fact, Scott says, Kent was upset when her "Love" stamp was celebrated with a "Love Boat" party. She did not attend the event. "She was about humanitarian love," Scott says. "How do we serve each other?"
Scott refers to Kent as a "joyful revolutionary" who shared her messages through art. "She's stirring hope," says Scott.
When Kent died in 1986, she willed her works to the Immaculate Heart Community, formed as a non-profit "ecumenical community without walls" in 1970. In 1997, the Immaculate Heart Community opened the Corita Art Center. They have a collection of 30,000 objects, including her art, writings, ephemera and her own photography. They have loaned works to other institutions and work with academics researching Kent's life. As Scott says, it would be an "injustice" to not include her in the greater conversation of Pop Art.
Fortunately, in recent years Kent's work has had a resurgence in popularity, as her art has been exhibited around the world. "Her messages of love and justice and hope, they're really relevant to what's happening now," says Scott when we follow up by phone. "We really think of her artwork and using the ethos that she exhibited in her lifetime, to share that message of social justice, but also through a very joyful lens."
Corita Art Center
5515 Franklin Ave, Los Angeles 90028