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Art review: Corita Kent: Get With The Action, at the Ditchling Museum of Art

29 June 2018

Jonathan Evens tells the story behind the Corita Kent exhibition

Courtesy of Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Commnity, Los Angeles. 

Immaculate Heart College Art Department, Los Angeles, c.1955. (Sister Mary Corita is the Sister talking to the cleric, centre, background). See gallery for more images

Immaculate Heart College Art Department, Los Angeles, c.1955. (Sister Mary Corita is the Sister talking to the cleric, centre, background). See galler...

CORITA KENT’s vibrant, passionate, wry, colourful, compassionate, and contextually relevant art generated a string of correspondence from the Archbishop of Los Angeles placing ever more stringent constraints on her art and teaching. Copies of this correspondence are displayed at the end of this most marvellous of exhibitions, leading the viewer to question why the Church so rarely values and nurtures the artists and prophets found in its midst.

The story of Corita Kent is encapsulated in the different names that she used at different stages of her life. Born Frances Elizabeth Kent in 1948, as a child she attended schools run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, before becoming Sister Mary Corita when she herself joined the Order.

She joined the art department at Immaculate Heart College (IHC) in Los Angeles in 1945, developing the practice of creating her own work during intense two-week periods in August. This was initially figurative, drawing on Byzantine imagery using a style inspired by Ben Shahn, before absorbing the visual impact of Pop Art and immediately grasping its ability to reveal the holiness of the ordinary. She made a Balinese saying — “We have no art. We do everything as well as we can” — the slogan of the art department, explaining: “You don’t have art off in a little niche someplace. You have no distinction between what is art and what is not art. You do everything as well as you can.”

From 1961 onwards, she transformed the IHC’s Mary’s Day Festival. Traditionally a day preserved for mass, sacred musicm and speeches, it was turned by Corita and her students into a visual feast involving a parade showcasing their placards and signs, dancing, poets, and performers in an alternative celebration of the Virgin Mary.

The serigraph mary does laugh (1964) derives from comments made at this Festival, while the exhibition also includes two films made about Sister Corita and which feature the Festival. These changes and Sister Corita’s appointment, in 1964, as Head of the Art Department generated complaints to the Archbishop and triggered the use of authorisations and authority to constrain her creativity.

As a result of these tensions, in 1968 Corita took a sabbatical. At the end of it, she reluctantly sought a dispensation and left the IHMs. As Corita Kent, she continued her work as an artist throughout the 1970s, although her style changed as she made more conversational works in watercolour.

In this time, she devoted herself to conveying artistic messages of optimism and peace, including the largest copyrighted work of art in the world, a brilliant rainbow painted on a natural gas tank along a Boston highway, and one of the smallest, with the issue in 1985 of her Love postage stamp with its characteristic splashes of colour; more than 700 million stamps were sold. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1974, and died in 1986.

courtesy of the corita art centre, Immaculate heart community, los angeles, CACorita Kent, mary does laugh (1964)

This exhibition takes the viewer on a chronological journey of Sister Corita’s work, covering a 20-year period from 1952 to 1972 through a series of more than 40 works. Her output during this time includes experimentation with typography, quotations, song lyrics, fragments of advertising slogans and media campaigns, and involves collages and cut-and-paste layering techniques captured in serigraphs (silk-screen prints).

Her works of the mid- to late 1960s contain social, political, and religious messages, as seen in startlingly bold works such as stop the bombing (1967), for emergency use soft shoulder (1966), phil and dan (1969), and that man loves (1967).

Her early figurative religious art resonates with the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft’s permanent collection; when the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic was established in Ditchling in the early 20th century, typography, lettering, and printing became fundamental parts of its narrative. The Guild’s work featured a large output of printed religious and social propaganda, with many commissions received from the United States by means of the Catholic Art Association, which promoted the work of the Ditchling Community in its magazine.

The CAA was founded in 1937 by Sister Esther Newport as an organisation of artists, art educators, and others interested in Catholic art and its philosophy, and created the world into which Sister Corita stepped when she began her career as an inspirational artist and teacher at IHC in 1945.

The derision directed at Sister Corita by the Archbishop of Los Angeles led directly to her decision to be released from her vows and leave the IHMs. As an educator at IHC, she connected with and inspired young people. As an artist, she engaged with the social issues and counter-culture of her day, developing a national profile and voice, even to the extent of appearing on the cover of Newsweek.

A wonderful piece of contextualised mission was brought to a premature end by the Archbishop’s inability to understand, combined with his inability to resist the local voices of complaint. Sister Corita was a true pioneer in, and heroine of, the 20th-century Church. This exhibition cannot be commended too highly.

“Corita Kent: Get With The Action” is at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, Lodge Hill Lane, Ditchling, Hassocks, East Sussex, until 14 October. Phone 01273 844744.


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