Corita, 1918-1986

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1918-11-20
Death 1986-09-18
Americans

Biographical notes:

Corita Kent was an artist, teacher, and for many years a Roman Catholic nun. She died of cancer in Boston, Mass., in 1986.

From the description of Papers, 1951-1986 (inclusive). (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 232008220

Corita Kent, 1918-1986, joined the joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (I.H.M.) in 1936. After studying art, she focused on silk screening beginning 1950. Known as an activist, and deeply interested in peace and justice issues, she became a popular artist in the 1960s producing prints of bright primary colors containing words with strong social and religious messages.

From the description of Sr. Corita [Kent] silk screen prints on the alphabet. (Graduate Theological Union). WorldCat record id: 50792748

Corita Kent (a.k.a. Sister Corita) was a nun and head of the art department of Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. In the 1960s and 1970s she became well known for her silk screen paintings which often combined pop art with religious imagery. She was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1918 and died in Boston, Massachusetts in 1986.

From the description of Corita Kent prints, circa 1966-1980. (University of Georgia). WorldCat record id: 464224492

Artist Corita Kent was well known for her unique style of serigraphs (silkscreen prints) and public works. Often lauded as a Pop artist, Corita used a combination of quotations from contemporary intellectuals paired with brightly colored iconic images. Her art appeared in magazines, book jackets, greeting cards, billboards, postage stamps, and even on a 150-ft. high gas tank.

Born on November 20, 1918, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Robert and Edith (Sanders) Kent, Corita spent her formative years as Frances Elizabeth Kent. In 1936, she joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles, taking the name Sister Mary Corita. After graduating from the University of Southern California, where she studied art with Charles and Ray Eames, Corita began teaching art at the Immaculate Heart College (IHC), a Catholic liberal arts women's college in Hollywood, California, run by the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Los Angeles.

Known for its progressive teaching style and way of life, IHC was an early adapter of the 1965 Second Vatican Council, promoting a spirit of renewal and openness to new theological ideas in their curriculum. Attracting national attention for their educational practices, no department received as much attention as the Art Department under the direction of Sisters Corita and Mary Magdalen Martin. Corita was a demanding and inspirational teacher. Seeing herself as a bridge between her students and other artists, Corita strove to impart the theory of how art was changing in response to changes in the world. She saw art not as separate from humanity, but as an integral part of it.

Although the school received national accolades for their educational system, they were condemned by their male superiors within the Church. In May 1965, the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles accused IHC and the Sisters themselves for their implementation of the ideas sanctioned by Vatican II. At least two of his accusations centered around IHC's famous Art Department: "Why do you permit the use of modern art to portray religious subjects?" and "Do you know that the Christmas cards designed by your art department and the sisters are an affront to me and a scandal to the archdiocese?" (from Anita Caspary's Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of Los Angeles, page 3).

The Church was all too aware of the increasing national recognition of Corita's art. Only a year earlier, she was commissioned to design a banner for the Vatican Pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Using her unique style of printmaking, Corita's banner used a series of quotes from two modern day Johns: Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy. Because the quotations used in the banner were called "Beatitudes," some in the Church directed their displeasure over this new interpretation towards the Immaculate Heart College.

The cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles saw Corita's art as sacrilegious. He used her work and teachings as examples when condemning the Sisters for their activities. In 1966, he was so upset by IHC's celebration of Mary's Day, featuring decoration provided by art department students and faculty, he wrote to Mother Humiliata (Anita Caspary) a severe letter: "May I say further, that we hereby request again that the activities of Sister Carita [sic] in religious art be confined to her classroom work and under your responsibility" (from Anita Caspary's Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of Los Angeles, page 41). In response to the constant accusations, the Sisters wrote a declaration for their vision of their future in 1967. The Immaculate Heart Decrees of the Chapter of Renewal was revolutionary. The prologue stated "women around the world, young and old, are playing decisive roles in public life, changing their world, developing new life styles... American religious women want to be in the mainstream of this new, potentially fruitful, and inevitable bid for self-determination" (from Anita Caspary's Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of Los Angeles, pages 244-245). But the pressure from the Church continued and in 1970 four hundred Immaculate Heart Sisters of Los Angeles surrendered their vows and reformed as the Immaculate Heart Community. Now they were free to promote their vision of liberation, no longer restricted by male-dominated rules and regulations.

Two years before the formation of the Immaculate Heart Community, Corita surrendered her own vows when she went to pursue her career as a full-time artist in Boston, Massachusetts. Even before she left the order, she had been receiving various commissions from outside the Immaculate Heart College art department, including commissions to design book jackets, magazine covers, and advertisements. Although she loved being an educator, Corita wanted to devote more time to her own art.

While in Boston she received steady commissions. In 1971, Corita was asked by Boston Gas to design a mural for one of their 150-foot high gas tanks located in Dorchester. She was specifically chosen for this project "to capture, in her unique style, the spirit of Greater Boston as well as Boston Gas, its employees and its product... [It was believed] her use of vibrant colors, unrestricted movement and imagination [would] accomplish this" (#9.1).

In the mid-1980s, Corita became involved with Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), a non-profit advocacy organization for anti-nuclear and environmental issues. She worked with several local PSR chapters, including chapters from Greater Boston and San Luis Obispo, California, to create the "PSR Billboard Peace Project." Designing at least three different billboards featuring her statement, "We can create life without war," the Peace Billboard Project raised funds and awareness throughout the country.

Also during this time, the United States Postal Service (USPS) commissioned one of Corita's most recognized designs. In 1981, she was asked to design the third stamp in the famous Love Stamp series. To Corita, her 22-cent Love Stamp (released April 1985) expressed "good will and harmony that could exist among all peoples" (#9.14). Later, she was "appalled" to learn the USPS arranged for the opening ceremonies to be held on the set of the television show The Love Boat, and boycotted the event.

Throughout her life and up until the day she died on September 18, 1986, Corita remained dedicated to creating art to engage people with the spirituality and joy of everyday life. In 1979, at a testimonial dinner held in her honor at Immaculate Heart Community, Corita spoke on her philosophy of being an artist: "There is a myth around that artists suffer a painful and lonely task in their making -- And of course the myth is true if we acknowledge that every human being is an artist -- that pain and loneliness and making is in each of us -- not only in those who paint or dance or make music. But there are joyful times too and the artist is never alone actually in that everyone else is going thru same process -- each with her own unique sound -- So we are really all in it together and there are no people who are not artists" (#5.3).

From the guide to the Papers of Corita, (inclusive), (bulk), 1936-1992, 1955-1986, (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)

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Subjects:

  • Alphabet in art
  • Prints--20th century
  • World politics in art
  • Prints
  • Women artists
  • Arts and religion
  • Quotations--Pictorial works
  • Women printmakers

Occupations:

  • Artists

Places:

  • United States (as recorded)