Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

The Tumultuous Times of Corita Kent: Pop Artist's Life Makes This Coffee-Table Book Worth Reading

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

The Tumultuous Times of Corita Kent: Pop Artist's Life Makes This Coffee-Table Book Worth Reading

Article excerpt

As I read April Dammann's large-format and highly illustrated book on the life of the pop artist known as Corita Kent (1918-86), I wondered, "Do people actually read coffee-table books?" Well, if they don't, perhaps they will make an exception for Corita Kent. Art and Soul. The Biography.

Kent was born Frances Elizabeth Kent on Nov. 20,1918, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. She was the fifth of six children born to devout Catholic parents Robert and Edith. When Frances was 3 years old, the family moved for a brief time to British Columbia, and then to a house owned by Robert's father in Hollywood, Calif.

In 1936, after graduating from the Los Angeles Girls High School (now Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto), Frances followed her older sister Ruth into the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles, not far from the family home. She surprised all of her friends when she told them she was entering the convent, but she was positive it was her calling.

That summer, before starting her postulancy she attended classes at the Otis Art Institute. In high school, she excelled in art. When she entered the novitiate, she took the name Sr. Mary Corita, meaning "Little Heart."

Before becoming the assistant instructor in the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles because, as she said, "I was known to have a certain artistic flair," she taught First Nation children in British Columbia for two years.

In 1951, she earned a master's degree in art at University of Southern California and discovered serigraphy, or the art of silkscreen. Before she received her degree, she won the first prize at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art when one of the other sisters entered her silkscreen print "The Lord Is With Thee" into a competition. People either loved it or hated it.

Kent became known in the art world and in art education circles. With another sister, she traveled across the country over several summers, stopping along the way to give workshops at colleges.

According to Dammann, Kent saw herself as "an instrument of a benevolent, if mysterious, God." Her art was "Byzantine, strong, beautiful, naturalistic, but also churchy" in those early years, but that style would not stay with her for long.

Soon, she began using text and words to create larger images. She and Andy Warhol shared a similar style of serigraphy, but while his intentions were commercial, hers were to make fine art. In the early 1960s, Kent's style began to reflect the world around her, such as the paper advertisements at the local supermarket and the escalating war in Vietnam. As a teacher, she inspired students to take artistic risks, just as she did.

In the late 1950s, the Los Angeles archdiocese, namely Cardinal James McIntyre, began criticizing the Immaculate Heart College as liberal. He labeled guest speakers at the college as "communists." He singled out Kent as "particularly troubling," calling her art blasphemous.

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Meanwhile, Kent was becoming a cultural critic of consumerism with her serigraphs and saw no contradiction between the sacred and secular in her art. Her theology was incarnational and forward-looking.

In the summer of 1968, Kent took a leave of absence, and as one former Immaculate Heart of Mary sister told me recently she "just walked away" Kent was exhausted from years of teaching and working, with only a one-month break each year.

From this biography I was not able to gain a clear timeline for everything that happened in Kent's life at this time. For example, she went to Cape Cod for her 1968 sabbatical that ended with her leaving her community, but she was also a participant at a historic meeting in 1969 between the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters and three "fed up" bishops who delivered the Vatican's "four points" letter. Because the author does not seem aware of canonical processes, she does not clarify the timeline. …

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