Sister Corita Kent: The Rebel Nun Who Rallied People Through Pop Art
“The only God-Love we know is human love,” Corita Kent, once Sister Mary Corita, painted in no one walks waters. For many religious artists, the theme of spirituality revolved around the intangible, the things that transcend human reality. But Corita is different: She finds inspiration within the grocery store, purpose in the streets, and God in all things ordinary.
Corita was a nun and Pop artist in the 1960s, just around the time the movement was at its peak. Her work was largely experimental in nature. Breaking free from the ropes of convention, it was even considered provocative to a degree — at least for one with a vocation within the Church.
Still, Corita continued to honor her own spirituality. She was involved in social movements, finding herself inspired and transformed by the dynamic nature of everyday life. When she was heading the art department at Immaculate Heart College, the motto (quoted from the Balinese) was: “We have no distinction of what is art and what is not art — we do everything as well as we can.”
To Corita, the value of creativity lies within its potential to be transformative. “We can all draw and paint and make things,” she wrote in Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit. “Doing and making are acts of hope, and as that hope grows, we stop feeling overwhelmed by the troubles of the world.”
Sister Corita, Art Educator
Born Frances Elizabeth Kent in 1918, a five-year-old Corita with her family moved from Iowa to Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. Just as it is now, contemporary culture was at its apex in Hollywood; this was a fact that influenced Corita in great ways. As a young girl, Corita gravitated towards the arts. Her father encouraged it.
Although her fascination for the contemporary is her primary driving force, she was also influenced by medieval art. This is especially evident in some of her older work, such as in the lord is with thee, which she made a decade before adopting her signature Pop serigraphs.
Corita taught art in her alma mater, the Immaculate Heart College, until she became the department head in 1964. Her medium as an artist was serigraphy or silkscreen printing, which helped her in demonstrating and teaching. It also reflected her deep philosophy in art: that it’s meant to be shared with all.
Silkscreen printing allowed the production of a wider quantity of artworks, thereby making her art more accessible. “Screen printing, in and of itself, is a very democratic medium,” said Nellie Scott, director of the Corita Art Center.
The method also allowed students to create multitudes of works — an effort that’s far more challenging than it sounds. Corita would tell them to submit a hundred drawings by the next day — which would be met by groans and frustration — but, as Corita would instruct, they’d come the next day, a hundred pieces of drawings in hand.
But this isn’t rooted in a bureaucratic teaching process. Corita’s notorious assignments had a deeper, more ruminative purpose. “Sometimes you can take the whole of the world in, and sometimes you would need small pieces to take in,” she said.
The goal, therefore, isn’t to produce and produce mindlessly; rather, it’s to deconstruct the world in parts, instead of merely depicting it in its overwhelming entirety. Among her ten rules in the department is:
Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.
“If you have ever watched a wave coming to shore, you will have a pretty good idea of how Corita taught,” wrote Jan Steward, friend and student of Corita, and co-author of Learning by Heart. “The wave’s approach is broad and inclusive rather than the arcing line of a shooting star… The mass of material is not meant to overwhelm, but to offer more than enough to work from.”
Mediating Advocacies, Calling for Change
By this time, the school was becoming known as a liberal institution. Mary’s Day, once a demure and silent event, was adorned in bright colors, flower garlands, and vivid protest signs. It was a dramatic shift from customary to unorthodox, solemnity to jubilance.
Instead of reserving the celebration for Mary and other venerated Catholic traditions, they made it an avenue for advocacies: Their signs brought attention to issues like poverty and world hunger. “I think celebrations are always meant to instruct and inspire, to empower people to use their own creative skills through images and ritual to action,” she wrote.
Amid this growing view of a “liberal” Catholic institution, Corita remained central to it all. “You see this as kind of a prototype for what is later California culture,” said Scott.
The next year, Corita painted my people, a blatantly political piece that featured the Watts Rebellion and a quote from Catholic priest Maurice Ouellet:
Youth is a time of rebellion. Rather than squelch the rebellion, we might better enlist the rebels to join that greatest rebel of his time—Christ himself.
Another one of her serigraphs, the juiciest tomato of all, meant to humorously contextualize Mary through the iconic imagery of 60s pop culture. What was meant to be a double entendre of sorts — an appropriation of consumer language and promotion of the Vatican II’s efforts to bring attention to poverty — was received with blistering criticism from the religious clergy. On it, she painted:
If we are provided with a sign that declares Del Monte tomatoes are juiciest, it is not desecration to add: Mother Mary is the juiciest tomato of all.’ Perhaps this is what is meant when the slang term puts it, “She’s a peach,” or “What a tomato!”
The archdiocese thought it was frivolous and profane. More letters were sent to Corita, including one from the archbishop himself. “What pertains to the liturgy and to sacred art comes within my jurisdictions. We hereby request again that the activities of Sister Corita be confined to her classroom,” the letter said.
Exhausted and burned out by the pressure, Corita couldn’t, in good conscience, continue her life within the institution.“I don’t think she could ethically keep going without addressing what was happening around her,” Olivian Cha, curator and collections manager in the Corita Art Center, said.
Eventually, she sought dispensation from her vows and headed to Boston on her own. A year later, the Immaculate Heart Order — after facing similar criticisms — was reformed into the Immaculate Heart Community.
“We Can Only Speak of Hope”
With more creative freedom than ever, Corita moved to her own apartment. She was able to go on large-scale artistic prospects, such as the Rainbow Swash for the Boston Gas Company in 1962. Corita’s idiosyncratic style turned a little more intimate. Scott described it as “somber, pastel, and minimalistic.”
Despite this newfound liberty, Corita was faced with a tragedy: a cancer diagnosis and, later on, the loss of her dear sister Mary Catherine (also to cancer). Such adversities steered the direction of her creative process even further, toward the more introspective.
This didn’t, however, deprive Corita of inspiration or faith. On the contrary, these continued to be her driving force and provided her with a sense of sustenance.
Steward wrote, “To work, play, see, touch, laugh, cry, build, and use it all — even the painful parts, and survive with style: that’s what Corita taught.” For her, movement was necessary: It kept her alive. To continue to create is to continue to live.
The Transformative Power of Creating
After she was diagnosed with cancer for the third time, Corita passed away in 1986. She left her works with the Immaculate Heart Community, which later founded the Corita Art Center where they’re all housed and preserved.
A theme that remained ever-present in Corita’s work — whether as the teacher-nun in California or the artist in Boston — was that of humanitarian love. Her activism was motivated by love; so was her profound creativity.
To Corita, the act of creating comes with a responsibility. She taught and shared her work in the hopes that artistic talent is cultivated enough to move and be moved by posterity:
“To dream about painting and not also to work at it doesn’t ever bring about a painting. To dream about creating a new world that is not teetering on the edge of total destruction and not to work at it doesn’t make a peaceful world. So it is important that we are creative people working daily on the greater picture as well, bringing to it all our skills of imagination and making…
And we work on it so that we and our children may have a world in which to fulfill our reason for being here — which is to create.”
Corita’s spirit lives on in vibrant silkscreen prints, in the dawn of pop culture, in the minds of the inspired. Her spirituality remains alive through the creative process that she shared so generously. In the words of Jan Steward: “The process is one of teaching, learning, growing, and doing things to make the world a better place. Whether that world is within you or as great as infinity.”