"Sister Corita, the rebel nun, the joyous revolutionary, as artist Ben Shahn called her, came of artistic age and into raised consciousness in the 1960s — a decade of war and of culture-bending forces." So opens April Dammann's new "Corita Kent. Art and Soul. The Biography," from Angel City Press.
Kent's prints, made both during and after her time as an Immaculate Heart sister in the L.A. Catholic Archdiocese, made her one of the most prolific mid-century pop artists. She was on the cover of Newsweek and compared to Andy Warhol. Her work includes the LOVE stamp, which by 1985 had sold more than 700 million copies.
John Rabe spoke with Dammann about Kent's life and works:
When did she start making art?
She was discovered to have artistic talent as a kid in parochial Catholic schools in Hollywood, and it was encouraged by a couple of the young nuns, so she was making art from an early age. But really, the nuns in her order — the Immaculate Heart of Mary — they all became teachers, and so she began teaching in schools, even in Canada for a time. But her art developed in graduate school, studying art for an MFA. She discovered silkscreen process early on in her study and began making multiple prints of beautiful, original silkscreen, while teaching at Immaculate Heart College.
Tell us more about her serigraphs.
She would draw subject matter from the commercial world around her — advertisements, slogans — but also from the Bible. So she would turn messages that were to draw us toward, maybe, General Mills cereal into something like 'The big G stands for goodness,' and that could sell Cheerios, but to Corita the big G was God. And so she would try to infuse the spirituality into everything she did, but with fun and incredibly bright color.
And the Archdiocese was not in love with this.
This was a terrible time for the nuns of this order in Hollywood. They were a progressive order, they were liberal, and the Vatican II reforms came along; Sister Corita and her sisters, this was made for them. But it was Corita's luck to have the most conservative archbishop in the country. Cardinal McIntyre was their male authority in the hierarchy in the Los Angeles church, and he would have nothing of reform for these nuns. He became angry, he called them bad women and he threatened to make them suffer, and he did make them suffer.
(Cardinal McIntyre at 1961 ground-breaking ceremony at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica shaking hands with Patricia Kennedy, with Sister Mary David and Mother Mary Ancilla. LAPL/Herald-Examiner collection)
McIntyre eventually dismissed all of the Immaculate Heart teachers. Was this turmoil the reason she vacated her vows?
You know, she's been asked that question, and to the day she died she said "I can't tell you exactly why I left, but that kind of turmoil, seeing the suffering of my sisters — I really had to get out of there."
For much more, click on the audio to hear John's entire interview with April Dammann. And go see the Corita Kent exhibit at PMCA which opens June 14.