Corita Kent’s passions were creativity, transformation and love

Author and art historian April Dammann’s new biography of Corita Kent, known for most her career as Sister Mary Corita, traces the actions of these influential forces on the life of this unlikely Hollywood media star.

“Corita Kent. Art and Soul. The Biography,” is Dammann’s second book published by Angel City Press. It arose from a three-year labor of love spent researching Kent’s life, work and importance to Southern California’s art history.

“I was highly motivated to draw attention to her as a woman, as a teacher, as an activist for social justice, but mainly as a wonderful maker of silkscreen prints,” said Dammann.

Kent’s career in seriography was productive and profound, yet Corita’s legacy has not endured as well as many male artists of her time. “She was slipping into obscurity fast. Being a female and a woman religious in full habit for most of her career, she was not taken as seriously as some of her contemporaries,” Dammann said.  

Dammann describes Corita’s life as a dramatic arc more interesting than most fiction. “I saw this woman’s story as something fascinating, historical, literary, pictorial, all those things you might associate with a good film,” Dammann said.

Dammann leads readers through that life, from the young girl who enters the convent at age 18, to the tireless teacher devoted to inspiring creativity in her students, to the activist using the medium of her art as her means of protest, to the woman who leaves her Church behind to forge a new life in a new city, still holding to her artistic expressions of love.

The biography’s three sections encapsulate Kent’s life. The first section follows her into the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent in Hollywood. Her devout dedication to teaching, artistic production and the strict schedule of the convent resulted in her frequent bouts of insomnia and depression.

“Her students felt respected. She fostered collaboration in art projects and sat on the floor among them in the art workshops,” Dammann said. Corita demanded much from her students. Mediocrity was not an option in Immaculate Heart College art department.

“She was a woman of faith. Her early art was religious, sometimes figurative, sometimes more of the abstract, which became emphasized later in her career,” said Dammann, who also noted Corita’s style differed from other pop artists with her frequent depictions of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and use of Biblical quotes.

Finding her voice

The second section finds Corita concentrating on new forms in silk screening, developing her unique style. She begins to use bold, vibrant shapes and texts to convey messages of social justice that become increasingly important to her.

Corita, the “Little Heart,” had her heart in her faith, always seeking to find the sacred in the secular. A print for General Mills used their famous “G” logo with the words, “The big G is for goodness.”  

“For Sister Corita, the big G stood for Goodness, but it really stood for God. Goodness was about her faith, and about drawing people, not to the right shelf at the grocery store, but to be fed by God,” said Dammann.

A 1964 New York Times article claimed, “Sister Corita did for bread and wine what Andy Warhol did for tomato soup.”

The world took notice, and by the mid 1960s her students found that they are often competing for her attention in class with the news media, luminaries and celebrities who showed up.

“Beauty merged with power in her studio,” said Dammann. Her colors became brighter, her words often drawn from Rilke, E.E. Cummings, Yeats, the Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel.

Corita attracted many labels: radical, feminist, activist, joyous revolutionary, rebel nun … and rock star. Corita’s artistic medium was her message. She was not going to walk a picket line or burn draft cards. That wasn’t her style.

Corita felt strongly about poverty, peace, racial harmony and social justice issues going on in society.

“The way I expressed myself was with ink, a hand press and a silkscreen. The words were important because the words in some way expressed what I could not do as profoundly as other artists, poets and musicians and activists who were already out there,” she said.

“I wanted to show a female artist could be strong and brave at a time when the Catholic Church was not encouraging her to express herself that way,” said Dammann.

The nuns at Immaculate Heart College were progressive.

“They obeyed their vows, but they were pressing against those barriers very hard. After Vatican II, they wanted more freedom and opportunity. They wanted to part of the liberalization of the Church. They looked to Corita as a leader to express herself in her art,” said Dammann.

The nuns found themselves in fierce conflict with Archbishop James McIntyre.

“The more resistance she got from her archdiocese and Cardinal McIntyre, the more she felt that she had to not give in. Ironically, the more she was asked to calm down and quiet her opinions and her artwork, the stronger and more vibrant they became,” said Dammann.

This conflict with Church hierarchy eventually led to a splintering of the congregation and to Sister Mary Corita leaving the Catholic Church entirely.

Life and art after Catholicism

Corita moved into the next phase of her life, transforming from Sister Mary Corita into the single woman living in Boston known as Corita Kent.

Dammann notes that Corita left Catholicism behind, but her artistic message continued to honor God, the source of love. “She didn’t allow ongoing bouts of depression to permanently darken her fundamental attachment to optimism, joy and love,” said Dammann.

Diagnosed with cancer in 1974, Corita decided her task was to get through it, sharing courage with others in similar circumstances.

“Her art softened in those later years. She was ill with cancer for 12 of her last years in Boston, and so her heart softened. Corita got quieter, her art got quieter, her colors muted,” said Dammann.

A humble and self-effacing woman, Corita nonetheless lived a bold and courageous life. Her colossal work covering a natural gas storage tank is a Boston landmark. Her “Love” stamp design sold 700 million copies for the U.S. Postal Service.

“Corita Kent followed her heart,” said Dammann. “Anyone not yet convinced of the precision of her awareness and of the affirmation of her grace has not been paying attention.”