The tumultuous times of Corita Kent

Sr. Corita Kent on the cover of Newsweek in 1967

Sr. Corita Kent on the cover of Newsweek in 1967

by Rose Pacatte

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By April Dammann
Published by Angel City Press, 160 pages, $40

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.

Related: From Global Sisters Report, "Bold, bright, revolutionary: Sr. Corita Kent's work takes its place in art history" (July 27, 2015)

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.

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, within 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.

I did some research and found out that Kent was granted a dispensation from her vows in December 1968 but the community invited her back for this meeting anyway. Her famous intervention, "What do you think Jesus would have done if given the choice?", went unanswered by the prelates at that meeting.

Kent now had to make a living for herself, which she did quietly, but with great style. In 1971, she designed the Boston Gas Company's gas storage tank— the largest copyrighted image in history. It is still there. I remember passing it often when I lived in Boston and I don't think I ever knew that a (former) nun had created the image.

In 1985, Kent designed the U.S. Postal Service's 22-cent "Love" stamp, which had sales that exceeded 700 million.

Why did Kent leave her community at the age of 50? Dammann explores possible reasons, saying that ever since Kent had entered the convent, she had suffered from insomnia, beginning with sleeping near a stairwell door that banged every time someone went in or out. She tried various remedies for the continuing insomnia, from seeing a Jungian therapist to biofeedback to hypnosis for depression.

Now solitary, she could set her own hours and sleep when it came. The social upheaval of the 1960s and the constant criticism from the hierarchy could not have been easy either, for herself or bearing it for her community.

In at least one television interview included in the 1991 documentary "Primary Colors: The Story of Corita," Kent admits to a deep depression — and a longing for human love. And then, sometimes a person just gets tired.

Back in the '60s, Kent met two priests with whom she formed strong friendships: Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan and Robert Giguere, a Sulpician who remained a priest but later left his community. Kent illustrated the covers of some of Berrigan's books and she integrated his quotes into her art. Kent and these two priests "remained lovers in spirit only."

But the surprise of Dammann's book is that she names a prelate with whom Kent fell in love that also remained unrequited. He was Humberto Sousa Medeiros, a priest from Fall River, Mass., who became bishop of Brownsville, Texas, in 1966 and then the archbishop of Boston, later cardinal, in 1973.

My community (Daughters of St. Paul) is located in Boston and has worked closely with the archbishops over the years, and this news was, well, new to me. Kent's and the cardinal's perspectives on the church and the world don't seem a good match at first glance. I wonder how they met, but that information is not included in the book.

I emailed Dammann to ask for her sources for this information and she replied "Josephine Pletscher (recently deceased) a former student of Kent's at Immaculate Heart College and lifelong friend, who became a career librarian and silkscreen artist." The Corita Center archives do not have information on any connection between Medeiros and Kent.

I also asked about Kent's leaving the church. Dammann stands by how she "interprets Corita's choices and actions after she left her convent for a life of independence in Boston," and that, according to her sources, Kent ceased going to the sacraments and attending Mass.

I asked Helen Kelley, former president of Immaculate Heart College and good friend of Kent, if it was true that Kent had left the church. Kelley said Kent would never have done so because it would have reflected badly on the new Immaculate Heart Community. Did she attend Mass and the sacraments in Boston? Kelley did not know "because I did not live with her."

Kent was ill with ovarian cancer for several years and died in Boston in 1986.

Dammann loves her subject and is wholly in Kent's camp. She settles the responsibility for the breakup of the Immaculate Heart Sisters, as well as Kent's departure, on the male hierarchy and McIntyre.

The large layout of the 160-page book is clean, sparse and wonderfully illustrated with Kent's work. Kent's personality, talent and gifts rise through the pages.

Dammann writes in the present tense, which may seem an affectation, but somehow the style works and makes the narrative more visual and real. The artsy sans serif typeface is small and thin and did not make the text on the mildly glossy paper easy for me to read. The sidebars add commentary and dimensions to Kent's story.

Kent was an incredibly productive and imaginative artist. As Dammann attests, Kent shaped and altered "the landscape of mid-20th-century art."

At the end of the day, Kent was motivated by love. Her serigraphs offer religious and social commentary and foster caring and empathy within the human family. Dammann directs a profound gaze into the tumultuous times and the life and work of Kent.

[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 12-25, 2016 print issue.

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