You probably have never heard of Corita Kent. Catholic nun, activist and artist, she appropriated brand logos and ad tag lines into messages of joy, peace and love. A survey of her work launches The Summer of Women (three debut exhibitions featuring women artists) at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum FIU on May 14.
In the Beginning was the Word: Works by Corita Kent looks at the extensive work of the Pop-Art pioneer. This retrospective celebrates her fusion of street signs, logos and advertising imagery with spiritual texts. Using these every day images she created symbolic and literal messages of hope and peace.
Born in 1918 she entered the Immaculate Heart order aged 18 in Los Angeles. After studying art and teaching elementary school she returned to Immaculate Heart College joining the Art faculty, teaching there for the next two decades. As Sister Mary Corita she created with her students disposable public art installations and between semesters created silk-screen serigraph prints.
In October 1962, a commercial illustrator named Andy Warhol became an overnight sensation with his ’32 Campbells Soup Cans’ installation in a Los Angeles gallery. Sister Mary Corita embraced the new pop art style with her prints using the written word and bold imagery. Religious scriptures, pop lyrics and grocery store signs were combined to call for social justice and human dignity.
She was 1966 LA Times Woman of the Year and made the cover of both Newsweek (The Nun going Modern) and The Saturday Evening Post. Sister Corita’s work attracted the attention of many artists including Alfred Hitchcock, Buckminster Fuller and Charles and Ray Eames who became regular speakers at the College.
Her friend was the well-known Anti-Vietnam activist and Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan. – Her 1969 serigraph “Phil and Dan” features a news photo of the Berrigan brothers burning draft cards, in fluorescent orange. He was featured on the cover of TIME magazine for an altogether different reason as a member of the Catonsville Nine and on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.
Perhaps the best summary of her legacy comes from Daniel Berrigan, who wrote in Come Alive! “The joy in her work, its riotous color, was her gift to a good, grey world. It seemed as though in her art the juices of the world were running over, inundating the world, bursting the rotten wineskins of semblance, rote, and rot…one emotion seemed denied to Catholics…they needed joy, joy, joy! Corita Kent had it in abundance. She gave it, pressed down, flowing over.”
Her subsequent works touched on the Space Race, the Cold War and the US involvement in Vietnam. An image of injured US soldiers in Vietnam makes Manflowers one of Kent’s most distinctive antiwar posters.
After mounting pressure from the diocese, she left the order in 1968, moving to Boston. She used the poems of Walt Whitman and speeches by John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King layered with popular culture, colour and logos.
Corita Kent created several hundred serigraph designs, for posters, book covers and murals. In 1985 she designed the US Postal Service’s largest selling stamp “Love”. (Unofficially making her the world’s best selling artist of all time). Her 1971 46m high ‘Rainbow Swash’ which covered a natural gas tank in Boston is still the world’s largest copyrighted work of art. (Reportedly complete with a small Ho Chi Min in the tail of the blue swirl).
Although disregarded by the male-dominated Pop art movement for many years, the Warhol Foundation presented the first full-scale retrospective of her work in 2013.
Corita King used words as both message and design element. The uplifting words and images reflect the spirit of the artist, activist and educator. Her work is an inspiration and her legacy can no longer be overlooked.
In the Beginning was the Word: Works by Corita Kent (May 14 – September 18) at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum FIU, Miami.