Imagine a crowd of young women wearing vividly-colored clothing with flowers in their hair, converging under a sea of signs and banners with bright, colorful images and slogans inspired by supermarket products— “Fresh Eggs,” “God Likes Canned Peaches”—waving under a bright blue sky. Acoustic guitars strum folk songs while people sing and dance along. Now, imagine that this celebration is also full of Catholic nuns in traditional habits, wearing flower garlands over their black-and-white wimples. The year is 1964, the occasion is “Mary’s Day,” the Catholic holiday of the Assumption of Mary, and the celebration was organized by a nun known as Sister Corita Kent, who also made the banners.
The Mary’s Day signs are just one example of the way that Kent used the language of advertising to create pop art with a religious, spiritual, or moral message. A nun and artist based in Los Angeles, Kent rose to fame in the 1950s and ’60s and continued to create art until her death in 1986. Though she isn’t as well-known today, she was covered widely in the 1960s and 1970s—she even appeared on the cover of Newsweek. The media latched onto the fact that these playful reimaginings of advertisements came from an unlikely source: a devout Catholic nun.
Born in 1918, Frances Elizabeth Kent was the fifth of six children. She was born in Iowa, but her family soon moved to Hollywood, California, where they settled during the glory days of silent film. Kent was interested in art from a young age. “I can remember always making things, like designing things, paper dolls and their clothes, and then drawing,” she said in a 1977 interview for a UCLA oral history project. Catholicism also played a large role in her life and her family very early on. Kent’s older sister Ruth and brother Mark both entered the religious life. Ruth joined an order called Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), the largest religious community in Los Angeles. IHM had been focused on providing education soon after its 1848 founding; the nuns taught both at IHM’s own college and in local Catholic schools, including the middle and high schools that Kent attended. By the time Kent graduated high school, she was sure she was going to become a nun herself. As she recalled in the UCLA interview, when a friend asked her, “When did you make up your mind?” she answered, “I don’t know. I think I just always have wanted to be.”
Kent joined the convent in 1936, shortly after graduating high school, and took the name of Sister Mary Corita (“Little Heart”). For the next 30 years, she lived and taught in the IHM community. At first, she taught elementary school during the day—often incorporating artistic activities in her lessons—and studied at night. She earned her bachelor’s degree in 1941, and in 1944 was sent to teach at a school for indigenous children in Canada. Three years later, she was called back to L.A. The Immaculate Heart College was going through the process of accreditation, and it was recommended that the art department hire a second teacher. With her obvious talent (not to mention a few art credits), Kent was the natural choice.
Taking the position meant that Kent had the opportunity for further education, and she embarked on the slow process of earning her master’s degree in art history while continuing to teach. At one point, she picked up a DIY screen-printing kit to teach her students. One saw her struggling with it, and introduced her to a woman he knew: Maria de Sodi Romero, the widow of Mexican muralist Alfredo Ramos Martínez. Romero had learned screen printing so that she could reproduce her late husband’s work. Under her tutelage, Kent picked up the basics of the form, and then taught herself everything from that point forward. She brought her enthusiasm into the classroom, and shared her knowledge with her students so they could create their own screen prints, too. Kent took a class in screen printing to earn credits towards her master’s, but “I don’t think I really learned anything new,” she said in the oral history. “It was just a time to be able to make prints.”
Kent completed two prints during that class. The following summer, in 1952, she looked at one of the prints with fresh eyes and new ideas. “It was really so bad that I started adding colors on top of it, making a completely new print,” she recalled in the UCLA interview. “It turned into a completely different picture because underneath it was a picture of the Assumption, with a very, as I remember it, kind of fashion-modelish lady in the center. It was a very unwholesome picture.”
Titled “the lord is with thee,” Kent’s image showed Jesus and the Apostles layered in shades of blue, green, yellow, tan, and brown, vibrating with the solemn intensity of a German Expressionist painting—very different from the sedate religious art of the time. Kent entered the piece in a competition sponsored by a museum in Los Angeles, and it won first place there, as well as in many later contests. But Kent discovered that her image was either loved or reviled. “It would either win a first prize or not be accepted in the show,” she explained in the oral history.
With “the lord is with thee,” Kent began to gain notice in the art community. She spent her summer school breaks creating art, and went on speaking tours during Christmas breaks. These tours allowed Kent to visit art museums around the country, but it was in her own Los Angeles that she encountered the artist who would change the direction of her work. In 1962, Kent attended an exhibition of Campbell’s Soup Cans by the then-unknown Andy Warhol. After seeing the paintings, she began incorporating the language of advertising and pop lyrics into her work. One month after seeing the Warhol exhibit, she began creating pieces that combined the familiar Wonderbread packaging with images of the Host, the circular wafers used during the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist. “By taking bread out of its ordinary form, and presenting it as his body, He [Jesus] originated pop art,” she explained in a 1966 lecture, as quoted in Corita Kent and the Language of Pop, edited by Susan Dackerman.
Kent saw the hand of God in the vernacular language of everyday life. She took the Exxon catchphrase, “Put a tiger in your tank,” and used it as a channel to the higher sprit. “‘Put a tiger in your tank,’ I really think of as saying [that] the spirit , whatever the spirit means to us, is inside of us,” Kent said in the oral history. In 1964, Kent created a response to the soup-can paintings after harvesting a few words from a Del Monte advertisement and declaring, “Mary mother is the juiciest tomato of all.” “I was aware of how ‘tomato’ was used colloquially”—an even-then outdated slang term for an attractive woman—“but I felt [that] language was taking a turn, you could hardly use a word without it having some other meaning,” she explained in the oral history. Determined to discover just what it all meant, Kent researched the word and found a connection between the tomato and the “mystical rose,” a symbol for Mary.
In the mid- ’60s, the tenets of Vatican II—the 1962-1965 council that made many changes to modernize the Catholic Church—inspired the IHM sisters to “ally their religious order and its work with the outside world,” according to Corita Kent and the Language of Pop. In so doing, the nuns embraced “contemporary themes, such as world hunger, and utilized forms and practices common to avant-garde artists and progressive educational theorists.” Under Kent’s direction, the college became a renowned center of the avant-garde, hosting events with some of the most groundbreaking artists of the times including Alfred Hitchcock, Josef von Sternberg, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and Charles and Ray Eames.
The art she created in this period often had an activist message. In 1967, she urged America to “stop the bombing” of Vietnam in a piece that read just that. In 1969, she incorporated the title of Pete Seeger’s anti-war song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” into a piece. That same year, she made the piece “love your brother,” featuring images of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1971, she created the largest copyrighted image in history: the Boston Gas Company’s storage tank, known as “The Rainbow Swash,” which still stands in the Dorchester neighborhood. Though some saw a hidden portrait of Ho Chi Minh, Kent denied it, insisting that the rainbow was a symbol of hope.
But not everyone was happy with Kent’s growing fame and the IHM sisters’ progressive approach. In particular, it infuriated Cardinal McIntyre, a conservative and powerful leader in the Catholic church. McIntyre saw Kent’s art as sacrilegious—especially the tomato screen print—and went on the attack, refusing to accept the order’s plans to modernize. “Do you want to look like a floozy on Hollywood Boulevard?” he asked in response to the nuns’ decision to update their habits. The Vatican backed McIntyre up, and by 1970, 350 of the 400 sisters had chosen to take leave of their vows rather than conform to McIntyre’s demands and formed their own community outside the Catholic Church. The Immaculate Heart Community still continues today, describing themselves as “formed by insights from eco-feminist and justice spiritualities.”
Kent did not join the new community; she had left the Church two years earlier. She was angry at McIntyre’s hostility towards IHM; she was overworked; she was suffering from insomnia and depression; and she was experiencing a loss of faith. “I’m really frightened to say this but everything appears different to me, even God, and I’m so afraid that I am losing the foundation of my belief,” she wrote to her friend and sometime collaborator, priest and poet Father Joseph Pintauro, as quoted by Sister Rose Pacatte in Corita Kent: Gentle Revolutionary of the Heart. Celia Hubbard, an artist friend of Kent’s, wrote to the president of IHM college, “I think Corita may have an exhaustive breakdown if she doesn’t take some time off.” Kent was granted a sabbatical, but she never returned. She was dispensed from her vows in November 1968.
She moved to Boston, where she embarked on a new phase of her work. Instead of directly religious, her art became more abstractly spiritual. In a 1980s interview quoted by Pacatte, she explained, “I came to feel that there is no distinction between religious art and secular art. Religious means to bind together. Religion is defined as a deep sense of connection to the whole cosmos so that we know we are related to everything and everyone.” In 1983, she created a series of billboards titled, “we can create life without war,” commissioned for the Physicians for Social Responsibilities. According to the Corita Art Center, she considered the piece the most religious work she’d ever done.
Kent was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1974, at the age of 56. After her diagnosis, she began spending more time working with watercolors; though they never received the reception her screen prints did, “she found comfort in the softness,” notes Pacatte. In 1986, the cancer spread to Kent’s liver and was diagnosed as terminal. Kent continued creating art for as long as she could, noting both her work and her pain levels on her calendar: “March 26: Pain. March 27: Washed out. March 28: Painting.” She died on September 18, 1986 at the age of 67. One of the last pieces she created is also her best-known: the Postal Service’s rainbow-striped “Love” stamp. With 700 million in sales, her message continues to be spread across the nation.
By Miss Rosen
This piece originally appeared in the March/April 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
Top Photo: Immaculate Heart College Art Department C. 1955; Corita Kent Pictured on the opposite page, in the center, pointing. Photograph by Fred Swartz. Image courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles
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