The Vow Factor
‘The Screen Printing Nun’ Sister Corita Kent is worshipped in editioning circles, and her influence continues to be felt. Fashion brand Chloe has dedicated its spring/summer 2021 collection to interpretations of the artist’s prints, and a battle rages to save her historic studio from being demolished. Why should you care? Read on.
Photo © Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles
“Doing and making are acts of hope,” is one of Corita Kent’s most cherished sayings (and possibly one to keep in mind while painting your Warhammer figures during lockdown).
It was this approach to art – relishing the act of creation itself, and embracing it as a positive force – that led to the Los Angeles nun and art teacher bonding with 1960s luminaries like designers Charles and Ray Eames, graphic whizz Saul Bass, architect Buckminster Fuller, film director Alfred Hitchcock and composer John Cage.
Art classes at Immaculate Heart. Photo © Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles
Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome and mentor to Lord Norman Foster, described attending Kent’s class as “one of the most fundamentally inspiring experiences of my life.” Cage took her ‘Ten Rules for Creatives’ back to his New York studio where it remained to inspire both his own work and that of the feted choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s partner. The Eames brothers and Kent were personal friends. She was to art teaching what the Hacienda is to discos – a reminder that mindset and approach make a crucial difference to any successful group endeavour.
These titans of the creative industries were arguably drawn to Kent’s soulful ethic – her belief that art is a healthy pursuit in and of itself. It’s said that she bonded with the Eamses in particular because of a shared rejection of the ‘amoral quality’ of post-war art.
Kent’s ingenue quality and the whimsical authenticity of her teaching created an energy that seduced the greatest creative minds of 1960s California. In an age when we are encouraged to ‘monetise’ our passions, and any creative endeavour that does not suggest imminent superstardom is viewed with a sympathetic smirk, it’s perhaps no surprise that Kent’s playful, purist approach is capturing imaginations once again. Art in 2021 is more about poster paints than auction houses; the talismanic work of our pandemic age is a child’s NHS rainbow displayed in a suburban window.
Chole lead designer Clare Waight Keller, who designed Meghan Merkle’s wedding dress, has based the label’s spring/summer ’21 collection around Kent’s prints. Recent posthumous exhibitions have included London’s House of Illustration (2019), ‘Spiritual Pop’ at the Portland Art Museum (2017), ‘Joyful Revolutionary’ at Taxispalais Kunsthalle, Innsbruck (2020) and ‘Someday is Now’ at The Andy Warhol Museum in New York (2015).
Like Warhol before her and Banksy later, Kent’s own art editions made a virtue of the screen printing process. Born to a devout Iowa family in 1918, she took vows at Immaculate Heart Community at the age of 18. She was teaching art classes there after only a year, and spent the next decade between the convent and travelling the world collecting folk art pieces for its collection. In the mid-50s she befriended the Eames brothers and, encouraged by their support, reached out to Hollywood luminaries asking if they’d speak at her classes. She was surprised to find not only that the likes of Bass and Fuller would gladly do so, but they also returned to join the students.
Kent was already experimenting with typography and graphic text by the late 1950s, but a visit to Andy Warhol’s breakthrough Soup Cans exhibition at Ferus gallery in 1962 blew her mind: “coming home,” she said, “you saw everything like Andy Warhol.” Two dominant creative strands emerged in her own work: slogans taken from sources ranging from Beatles lyrics to Camus quotations and the Bible, rendered in the same colour ways as household name products; and politicised duotone images with serene-yet-provocative text. She was made head of the Immaculate College art department in 1964, was The LA Times’ Woman of the Year in 1966, and appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1967.
Unfortunately Los Angeles’ Cardinal James McIntyre was unmoved. He dubbed The Immaculate Heart both “communist” and “blasphemous”, and gave it an ultimatum to either toe the line with “established religious practises” or have its wings clipped. The sisters decided to reinvent themselves as a ley community and girls’ school.
Kent herself became something of a national artistic treasure, designing the US Post Office’s best-selling stamp ‘Love’ and ‘Rainbow Swash’, officially the world’s largest copyrighted piece of art, on a gas tank in Boston. She died of cancer in 1986 aged 67.
Religious art has been desperately unfashionable for many years – a couple of centuries, even. An examination of spiritual deficit in Western cultures is beyond the scope of this article. But it is no surprise that in these fractured and bloodless times it’s not just the fashionistas at Chloe who are drawn to it. St Luke’s Church in Hackney, London, which also operates as a live electronic music venue, has commissioned a number of contemporary artists – including Es Devlin, who’s also made videos for Kanye West – to create religious art for its congregation, where God-fearing locals of Caribbean heritage hold hands with holy hipsters.
Less glorious news of Kent’s legacy, though, is coming from Los Angeles. The Corita Art Centre is scheduled for demolition, to make way for a car park. Following a campaign, the LA Cultural Heritage Commission has recommended it for historical landmark status as of December 2020. But it’s still not in the clear. You can get in on this worthy cause by heading over to https://www.corita.org/action now where you’ll find templates to use in your campaigning emails to LA City Council – especially if you’re based in District 13 where the studio is. Amen to that.