Sunday, May 29, 2016

When Nuns can Change Lives - Pat Rock and Corita Kent - the Girls from Iowa

Sister Mary Corita
At least two Nuns had a profound effect on me when I was growing up in the 1960's, meaning my years in high school and college.  One taught me English and Creative writing, Sister Louis Marie aka Pat Rock, and the other taught me the meaning of individual freedom, Sister Mary Corita, aka Corita Kent.

Pat Rock
Patricia McGuire, later known as Patricia McGuire Rock, was born in Rock Rapids, Iowa in 1930.  Frances Elizabeth Kent, later known as Corita Kent, was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1918.  Me, I was born in Iowa City, Iowa so we had that much in common at least.

The following is a link to a story I wrote about Pat Rock,
and it adequately describes her impact on my life.

Corita Kent, on the other hand, never taught me but Sister Louis Marie brought her radical art style to my attention when she was teaching me in the early 1960's.  If you did not live the 1960's you may never understand the meaning of revolution, change, war, academic freedom, civil rights, environmental concerns, protests, civil disobedience, riots, murder, corruption, and on and on.

I believe it was the greatest decade of upheaval in our nation's history and an unsuspecting Nun who was born in Iowa and teaching in California was a champion of change because of her unique art and powerful messages manifested in signs, slogans, and billboards.

Sister Mary Corita was such a champion that it led to her leaving the convent, just as Sister Louis Marie did a few years later.  Few people knew her back then, and fewer know her now, but it is time we learn about some of the unsung heroes in our nation's history.

Here is her story as told by the Corita Art Center in California.

Corita Kent, Warhol’s Kindred Spirit in the Convent

“The only rule is work,” read the seventh point on the Immaculate Heart College art department’s list of rules, devised by Corita Kent, known as Sister Mary Corita, one of the most unlikely Pop Art phenomena of the 1960s and ’70s.

“If you work, it will lead to something,” the edict continued. “It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.”

Warhol and Kent art

Predating even Andy Warhol (who later became an influence on her work), Kent was an early adopter of serigraphy, or silk-screening — considered a sign painter’s lowly tool at the time. She shared Warhol’s interest in the iconography of advertising but used it to very different ends, lifting texts from advertisements and poems and deconstructing and juxtaposing them to form colorful typographic works to help people “use their whole selves better,” as she once said.

This idealism dovetailed with the zeitgeist — her work found its way into civil rights and Vietnam protests — and landed her on the cover of national magazines; a stamp she designed for the United States Postal Service sold more than 700 million copies. But today she’s mostly remembered as a cult icon of sorts, whose life and work suggest a kind of alternate history of Pop Art. The curator Ian Berry, who recently assembled a traveling exhibition of Kent’s work with another curator, Michael Duncan, describes her as “a key figure in the history of American art,” and “a fiercely independent maker with a unique voice and vision.”

Frances Elizabeth Kent was born in Fort DodgeIowa, in 1918 and grew up in Los Angeles. Her family was Catholic, and after high school, she joined the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, earning an arts degree at the college the order ran. Ten years later, while pursuing her master’s degree, Kent was introduced to print making, the medium that would later bring her to the attention of art world.

By the early 1950s, she was forging her own unique aesthetic, and soon “priests and nuns from orders all over the country were sent to be educated at Immaculate Heart College,” wrote Ray Smith, director of the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles, in an email. For nearly a decade in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Kent toured widely, delivering lectures at institutions — religious and otherwise — across the country about her work.

In the late ’60s, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council — a landmark effort to modernize the church, which many Catholic clergy members took as a blessing for social and political activism — the Immaculate Heart sisters began chafing at the strictures that had traditionally bound the order.

Kent transformed Immaculate Heart College’s annual Mary’s Day procession from an austere march into a community celebration that included theatrical performances, food drives and masses of flower-decked followers holding up signs inspired by her art — part of the sisters’ campaign to bring secular and religious people closer together.

At the same time, Kent’s work was becoming increasingly political, addressing the Vietnam War and humanitarian crises. Tensions between the order and the church leadership in Los Angeles mounted, and Sister Mary Corita left the order in 1968, returning to secular life as Corita Kent. (Most of the other Immaculate Heart sisters followed suit not long after; in 1969, the order separated from the church, continuing its work as a lay organization. The Immaculate Heart College closed in 1980.)

Kent continued printmaking, even through the 12-year battle with the cancer that finally claimed her life in 1986, at age 67. Some of her work achieved prominence in the ’80s, though few people who saw it would have known the name of the artist; she was commissioned for several corporate and public arts projects, including designs for a Boston Gas Company fuel tank and the Postal Service’s “Love” stamp. Still, her work is not in many large museum collections, and until recently was rarely shown outside the Corita Art Center, which was established in her memory shortly after her death.

The Corita Art Center has a vast catalog of unprocessed photographs of Kent and her work. The photographer Suzanna Zak recently went digging through them and turned up a remarkable record of Kent’s life. The selection here includes images of Kent teaching as well as many photographs that Kent herself took.

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