Gift from the artist to the School Sisters of Notre Dame
The bold screenprints of Corita Kent (1918-1986) visualized some of the most socially and politically turbulent times of the twentieth century. Using words and images culled from consumer culture, popular music, literature, and spiritual sources, Kent, as an artist and educator, advocated for just causes and became increasingly political throughout her career. She used neon colors and text ranging from Pop Art, The Beatles, poetry, and psalms to slogans and advertisements. With this work, she denounced assassinations and the Vietnam War while supporting the Civil Rights Movement and various political campaigns. These works and the 32 years that Kent spent in the religious order defined Kent’s enduring artistic persona as the “Painting Nun.”
Kent was born in Iowa in 1918 as Frances Elizabeth Kent. After she joined the order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles at the age of 18, she took on the name Sister Mary Corita. She completed her undergraduate studies at the order-run Immaculate Heart College, later teaching art at the college for 22 years and eventually becoming the department head. While teaching, she finished her master’s studies at the University of Southern California and began screenprinting in 1951, her most employed medium. One reason that she appreciated serigraphy was that it allowed her work to be widely accessible. Her work became more politically engaged during the 1960s, and she reached international success. Among the press and attention she received, often with headlines gleefully reveling in her occupation as a nun, was Time’s Woman of the Year in 1966 and the cover of Newsweek on December 25, 1967 (“Sister Corita. The Nun: Going Modern”).
In 1967, she sought dispensation from her vows and left the religious order following a sabbatical brought on by exhaustion. She moved across the country to Boston but left on good terms, even leaving her remaining collection of works and copyright to the order following her death. In Boston, Kent worked on some of her largest and subsequently well-known commissions, while also battling cancer in 1974 and 1977. In 1971, she took a commission from the Boston Gas Company to paint an enormous gas tank visible from the Boston interstate. This work, of six stripes of color on a white background, was then the largest copyrighted artwork in the world. Kent returned to the use of six colored stripes in 1985, when creating a limited-edition postage stamp on love for the United States Postal Service, adding the words “Love is hard work”. The stamp proved very popular, but Kent protested the unveiling when she was told it would occur on the set of the TV show, “Love Boat,” a romantic comedy premised on new couples becoming romantically involved on every cruise. Hollywood love wasn’t what she had had in mind; rather, she had envisioned the stamp unveiled at the United Nations as a symbol of universal love—the kind that she had advocated for throughout her career. Kent passed away in 1986 in the wake of another bout with cancer. Her artistic style, dubbed “Hiroshima haiku” by journalist Linell Smith, as it combined “childlike calligraphy with deadly images,” galvanized the public and remains a spirited part of socio-political discourse today.
The impressive selection of works presented here were gifted to the School Sisters of Notre Dame by the artist and are being sold to benefit the organization.
- Smith, Linell. “The Painting Nun and the signs of our times.” The Evening Sun, May 1, 1985. Baltimore.