I had notions of a trendy 1960s avant-garde nun and was utterly astonished to discover that Californian pop art graphic designer Sister Corita Kent was born 100 years ago in November 1918.
I finally managed to visit the House of Illustration for the first time to view the “Power Up” exhibition focusing on the work of Californian pop-art nun, Corita Kent. It didn’t disappoint.
Corita is feted as the pop-art nun in the same breath as Andy Warhol, utilising advertising slogans, song lyrics and fluorescent colours to proclaim a very modern message of Christianity and humanitarianism.
Yet, against this is a monochrome, veiled Catholic nun who took a vow of obedience in a church still run by male traditionists of the Latin mass. Taking a vow of celibacy, she had no partners or children – yet her legacy continues to grow.
Graphic Designer for god
I had notions of a trendy 1960s avant-garde nun and was utterly astonished to discover that Sister Corita was born 100 years ago in November 1918. She was in the mid-40s when she came to national and international attention as graphic designer, screen printer and teacher.
Sister Corita’s activism mixed consumer and pop culture with biblical verses to produce powerful political messages about social issues of poverty, inequality, injustice and racism. She was a fierce critic of the Vietnam war.
Her controversial work – blending pop with piety – brought her into conflict with church authorities, though her Mother Superior tried to deflect conformist criticism and protect her talent. Senior Catholic clergy accused her of being irreverent and bringing scandal on the church.
On show is the correspondence between Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal James McIntyre – a diehard traditionalist – who was outraged by the comparison of the Virgin Mary to luscious tomato.
Sister Kent picked up on everyday language used in consumer culture and was featured in Newsweek in 1967. Having once trained to be a priest myself, I can understand her eventual journey away from the Catholic Church. She left her order and organised religion the following year.
Describing the political activism of her artwork, she said: “the idea of using words with visual forms and using just short passages is often a way to help awaken people to something they may not be aware of, rather than enclosing it in a book or making a speech about it.”
Corita continued to work and to break boundaries. Despite suffering cancer in the 1970s she continued to produce work, most notable a stamp design for the Federal Post Office adorned with the word “love”.
With Sister Corita’s work now being re-evaluated as an important part of the 1960s political and graphic art scene, her incisive messages of common humanity wouldn’t look out of place in the social media of today, either graphically or morally.
Born Frances Kent in 20 November 1918, she died in Boston on 18 September 1986.
Corita Kent: Power Up was an exhibition presented by the House of Illustration from 8 Feb to 12 May 2019
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