When I need to feel inspired, I need look no further than the bright, uplifting work of Sister Corita Kent (1918–1986). Kent was an artist, graphic designer, educator, and advocate for social justice. She entered the religious order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at age 18, eventually eventually teaching in and then heading up the art department at Immaculate Heart College.
In 1962, Kent a visited the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and saw Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans. She was struck by his pop art approach and produced her first Pop print that summer. Her work evolved from figurative and religious to incorporating advertising images and slogans, popular song lyrics, biblical verses, and literature.
Graphic designer and art historian Lorraine Wild says of Sister Corita, as she was known, had already been experimenting with the silkscreen printing process when she Warhol’s work:
“What she got from Warhol, clearly, was that there was this powerful imagery in pop culture that came out of advertising,” Wild says. “And that if you just looked at it from a slightly different angle, you could read all these other things into it, and it already had a kind of power because the audience was familiar with it.”
Kent loved words and freely combined advertising logos with Bible verses and quotes from Gertrude Stein, Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., the Beatles and e.e. cummings. In her hands, the familiar red and blue dots of the Wonder Bread wrapper expressed her thoughts on hunger and poverty.
Throughout the ‘60s, her work became increasingly political, urging viewers to consider poverty, racism, and injustice. In 1968 she left the order and moved to Boston. After 1970, her work evolved into a more introspective and sparse style. Although she battled cancer three times, she remained active in social causes until her death in 1986. At the time of her death, she had created almost 800 serigraph editions, thousands of watercolors, and innumerable public and private commissions, according to the Corita Art Center, a project of the Immaculate Heart Community that preserves and promotes Corita Kent’s art, teaching, and passion for social justice.
In 2016, Kent was awarded the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Medal. “Now, as Kent’s life and work becomes better known, we should remember that her oeuvre is not just graphically intelligent and innovative, it is also laden with meaning. It was created to inspire us to act for the common good, to help those around us, to resist greed and other selfish impulses, and to be part of a beneficent world community. That is the message that Kent continues to offer us in her vibrantly colored, brilliantly designed work,” according to Susan Dackerman, of AIGA.
Why did it take so long for Kent to gain recognition for her work?
Ian Berry, co-curator of “Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent,” a retrospective of Kent’s 30-year career says,
“An ‘artist’ was from New York. They were a man; they were an epic, abstract painter. And she wore a habit — she just didn’t look like what the, sort of, movie version of an artist looked like.”
Next Week: (Corita Kent’s 10 Rules for Students and Teachers)
For more about Corita Kent and to visit a digital archive of her work: http://corita.org