The Nun and Teacher
In 1936, at age 18 Corita moved to Los Angeles and entered the order of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, taking the name Sister Mary Corita. Kent not only studied art but also trained as an art teacher and then taught students after her first year and eventually became dean of the art department. She was known to attract the avant-garde, including students such as Alfred Hitchcock, Buckminster Fuller, and John Cage.
The Artist and Activist
Corita’s work evolved from figurative and religious to incorporating advertising images and slogans, popular song lyrics, biblical verses, and literature. Throughout the ‘60s, her work became increasingly political, urging viewers to consider poverty, racism, and injustice. In 1962, Corita saw an exhibition of Campbell’s soup cans by Andy Warhol and decided to change her style. She abandoned standard religious subject matter and adopted the pop art idiom, using only abstract shapes and commercial media imagery. Her specialty became brightly colored silkscreen prints, in which broad, gestural brushwork is juxtaposed with layers of printed text.
Major reforms came to the church, including allowing nuns to wear secular clothes. But kicking the habit was not enough, Corita’s mission demanded more. In 1968, she left the order and moved to Boston. After 1970, her work evolved into a sparser, introspective style, influenced by living in a new environment, a secular life, and her battles with cancer. Corita’s credentials as an activist are established by another series of prints that focused on hunger, race, civil rights, poverty, and the Vietnam War. She committed her time and artistic skills to create propaganda posters for political causes and the anti-war movement. These prints are emblazoned with phrases like “Black is Beautiful”, “Stop the Bombing,” and “Love your Brother.”
The Controversial Bostonian
During this time, Corita accepted a commission for a design on the new Boston Gas tank (Dorchester), the largest copyrighted work of art in the world. Whoever thought that an artist could make people fall in love with a gas tank? The genius of the design is that she alters our sense of scale, making the tank appear to be smaller in contrast to the proportionally oversized brushstrokes.
Considering Corita’s background and the politically tumultuous times, some people believed that the profile was a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in protest against the Vietnam War. She denied the allegations, saying the design was simply a joyful rainbow, a Pop Art gift to the City of Boston. When in 1992 the Boston Gas Company tore down the original tank, there was such a backlash that they immediately reproduced the design on a new tank.
In 1980, the deCordova Museum staged the first retrospective of Corita Kent’s work, called simply “Corita.” At the Fogg Art Museum, her original painted scale-model gas tank is preserved inside a vitrine; the attached text includes this sentence: ‘The tank’s rainbow motif offers a secular take on a passage from Genesis, in which God vows to “put a bow in the sky” as a symbol of the covenant with humanity.’
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.
Since the early 2000s, Corita’s work has been steadily recognized outside of the small artistic circles in L.A. and Boston. Exhibitions of her work have increased year after year in the United States and more recently in the United Kingdom, Australia, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, and France. During the last decade, Kent has been recognized as one of the most original and important Pop artists of her time. Her medium and her message remains just as relevant today.
Corita Art Center, www.corita.org
Dorchester Reporter, James Hobin
Gas Tank Photography: Flickr