The month of November celebrates the birth of Frances Elizabeth Kent, one of Los Angeles’ most important and often unrecognized artists of the 60’s. To top it all off, she was an artist who was nun.
At the age of 18, she entered the religious order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Hollywood, taking the name Sister Mary Corita Kent. She eventually became an art instructor at the Immaculate Heart College. Under Corita’s direction, the art department became a well-known center for creativity and recognizable styles.
Corita’s main work was with silkscreens, or serigraphs. She first experimented with this medium in the early 1950’s while earning her master’s degree at the University of Southern California. She later perfected her techniques under the guidance of Maria Sodi de Ramos Martinez, the widow of Mexican muralist Alfredo Ramos Martinez.
In the beginning, her style of serigraphs focused solely on religious iconography, but differed in a major way. Corita’s work was very abstract and displayed influences that ranged from medieval to contemporary art mixed in with religious icons. She was a huge admirer of famous contemporary artists of the time, such as Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko.
Because she mixed such religious iconographic materials with contemporary politics, she and the art department of the IHC drew a lot of negative attention from the archdiocese in Los Angeles. She received a formal letter from them ordering her to stop using the Holy Family in her artworks, stating that her work was “bordering on blasphemy.”
Her style then dramatically shifted from biblical depictions to overtly religious subjects. It is here where she began to focus on the world around her, using everyday brand names and slogans to comment on contemporary issues such as poverty and racial inequality.
Does this style sound familiar?
Corita is often included under the umbrella of the 60’s Pop Art movement, the notoriety of which is often credited to male artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. But something that is often overlooked about Corita is that she was the leading artist in innovating techniques very similar to modern digital photo editing programs. Corita photographed signs and advertisements and manipulated the results to achieve her signature style.
Here’s how it was was done:
Corita photographed a sign she wanted, and then transferred the image onto a 35mm slide. The text was then projected onto a wall where she would intentionally bend or crumple the letters, tracing it to create a stencil. This would become a hallmark of her style.
Because she continued to encounter much exhaustion from the archdiocese, Corita left the religious order in 1968 and moved to Boston to continue her artwork, where she eventually passed away from cancer in 1986. During this time she continued to create artwork that commented on social causes, but in a much more sparse style.
At the time of her death, she had created almost 800 serigraph editions, hundreds of watercolor paintings, and innumerable public and private commissions. This month we recognize her 101st birthday and the tremendous influence she had on art history. Her philosophical art techniques are still being taught in art schools and it is time she is recognized as one of the leading females of the Pop Art movement.
Please visit the Corita website for more information about this incredible female artist.