Re­vis­it­ing artist’s pop of ac­tivism

A new ex­hi­bi­tion in Pasadena shines a timely light on Corita Kent and her le­gacy.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Jes­sica Gelt

Corita Kent. You know the name, or you don’t. She’s cel­e­brated as one of the most popular Los An­ge­les artists of the last cen­tury, or she re­mains an un­sung hero with le­gions who have yet to dis­cover her work.

This, de­spite the fact that the pro­lific artist and erst­while nun could pro­duce more than 50 of her soughtafter Pop art prints in a cou­ple of weeks. From 1938 to 1968, Kent lived and worked at the Im­mac­u­late Heart Col­lege, the cam­pus on West­ern Av­enue that now houses the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute. Un­der her lead­er­ship, the art depart­ment at Im­mac­u­late Heart be­came a hot­bed of the coun­ter­cul­ture.

Kent’s lec­tures were of­ten pro­ceeded by films, in­clud­ing those by Fran­cois Truf­faut. Field trips were taken to the of­fice of Mid­cen­tury de­sign­ers Ray and Charles Eames, and the an­nual art fair was an “it” avant-garde hap­pen­ing, at-

tract­ing Kent ad­mir­ers, in­clud­ing Al­fred Hitch­cock, Buck­min­ster Fuller and John Cage. Kent’s pres­tige and ac­tivism even landed her on the cover of Newsweek in 1967 un­der the head­line “The Nun: Go­ing Mod­ern.”

Kent’s art, which con­sisted largely of screen prints with bold styl­ized let­ters and slo­gans, was of and for the peo­ple. Di­rect, un­flinch­ing and in­spired by the slick de­tri­tus of pop cul­ture, it in­vig­o­rated her fol­low­ers, inspiring them to ac­tion in the messy war-time morass of the 1960s. With the coun­try once again en­gaged in a lengthy, con­tro­ver­sial over­seas war, her work, with its em­pha­sis on peace and un­der­stand­ing, res­onates with fresh power. This is why cu­ra­tors Ian Berry and Michael Dun­can thought it time to stage the first fullscale ex­hi­bi­tion on the arc of Kent’s ca­reer: “Some­day Is Now: The Art of Corita Kent,” open­ing Sun­day at the Pasadena Mu­seum of Cal­i­for­nia Art.

“She’s a new dis­cov­ery and a leg­end at the same time,” Berry says.

One of Kent’s most fa­mous works was the 1985 “Love” de­sign she made for the U.S. Postal Ser­vice, which is­sued more than 700 mil­lion of the sim­ple stamps. An­other was a piece that took the im­agery of a Won­der Bread wrap­per and turned it into a com­men­tary on hunger and poverty.

“She ex­trap­o­lates Won­der Bread polka dots and trans­forms them into Eucharist wafers,” Dun­can says. “She’s get­ting back to what bread re­ally means, and what she’s cel­e­brat­ing is won­der.”

Kent left Im­mac­u­late Heart and moved to Bos­ton to make art full time. She was an in­som­niac who read pro­lif­i­cally — po­etry, phi­los­o­phy, lit­er­a­ture, even Look mag­a­zine, from which she di­vined in­spi­ra­tion for her work. In 1966, when she staged more than 150 solo shows in gal­leries, mu­se­ums and uni­ver­si­ties around the coun­try, The Times named her “Woman of the Year.”

De­spite all of this, she re­mains in the shad­ows of art his­tory. Not even Ray Smith, direc­tor of the Corita Art Cen­ter, the Los Feliz or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to pre­serv­ing and pro­mot­ing her le­gacy, was par­tic­u­larly familiar with Kent when she took the job.

“It was amaz­ing to me that no­body taught her to me in my uni­ver­sity art pro­gram,” says Smith, who was hired based on her back­ground in arts ad­min­is­tra­tion.

LACMA has eight Kent pieces in its col­lec­tion (and sells a Sis­ter Corita Kent Won­der­bread Mug for $12 in its gift shop).

“She’s a very ne­glected fig­ure,” Dun­can says. “She’s left out of a lot of dis­cus­sions.”

Kent went to the Mar­ket Bas­ket gro­cery store and found sig­nage, lo­gos, prod­ucts, phrases, type­faces and colors in the same way that other artists like Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol did, Berry says. Warhol and Kent were both hard-work­ing Catholic print mak­ers, Dun­can notes, adding that in 1962, Kent went to see the first West Coast solo show of Warhol’s work at the famed Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boule­vard in L.A. When she left, she re­marked that she started see­ing ev­ery­thing through Warhol’s eyes.

Although her pro­found fas­ci­na­tion with art is para­mount to un­der­stand­ing her as a per­son, one of the most strik­ing as­pects of Kent’s le­gacy was her de­vo­tion to teach­ing at the col­lege.

“I was so en­thralled with the place,” re­calls for­mer stu­dent Baylis Glas­cock, who made films of Kent. “They had a Wurl­itzer juke­box that had 200 LPs. They had ev­ery­thing from Dy­lan Thomas to Bob Dy­lan. They were just at­tuned to ev­ery­thing.”

As a teacher, Kent was de­mand­ing and ex­act­ing, say Glas­cock and oth­ers, in­clud­ing for­mer stu­dent Jan Stew­ard, a graphic artist with whom Kent co-wrote the book “Learn­ing by

Heart: Teach­ings to Free the Cre­ative Spirit.”

“Most of the stu­dents ab­so­lutely wor­shiped her. Peo­ple wanted to be her best friend,” Stew­ard says. “On my first day we were sup­posed to draw 3 inches of our arm for the first three hours. It took me so long to fig­ure it out, I was so up­set.”

Stew­ard adds that the de­vo­tion Kent in­spired wasn’t be­cause she was warm and kind, be­cause as much as she was, she wasn’t al­ways. She was a per­fec­tion­ist who ex­pected the same level of pro­fes­sion­al­ism from her stu­dents as she did from her­self.

The pur­pose of Kent’s epic art ex­er­cises, Glas­cock says, was to give stu­dents as­sign­ments so mas­sive that they would stop think­ing and just do it.

“The goal was to teach you to open your eyes and see things you had not thought of be­fore,” he says.

Corita Art Cen­ter’s Smith says an­other as­sign­ment was to draw 200 Coke bot­tles overnight and present them to Kent the fol­low­ing day.

The Corita Art Cen­ter lent about 150 of the 200 pieces of art and ephemera in the Pasadena ex­hibit, in­clud­ing posters, sig­na­ture seri­graphs and text pieces as well as rarely dis­played pho­to­graphs of Kent at work.

“L.A. has such a short mem­ory, and there is this idea that the cur­rent pop art scene just hap­pened out of nowhere, but Shep­ard Fairey didn’t just pop up in L.A. for no rea­son,” Smith says of Kent’s inf lu­ence on gen­er­a­tions of artists. “Silkscreened posters were the same idea as Twit­ter be­fore Twit­ter ex­isted. There had to be a mes­sage that was bold and short and eas­ily re­pro­duced in or­der to mo­bili- ze peo­ple.”

Kent was very much the ac­tivist, co-cu­ra­tor Dun­can says.

“When you know some­thing about her, you know good­ness is what she’s pro­mot­ing,” he says. “She took Madi­son Av­enue ap­peal and twisted it around to make it pos­i­tive. She found the hu­man­ity be­hind the state­ments we use ev­ery day.”

Kent’s lib­eral lean­ings, in­clud­ing her par­tic­i­pa­tion in protest marches and her pas­sion for civil rights, ul­ti­mately put her at odds with the L.A. Arch­dio­cese, which spurred her exit from the col­lege in the late ’60s. She died of can­cer at home in Bos­ton in 1986.

“She had a hard time in the com­mu­nity,” Stew­ard says. “I wanted to adopt her and cook for her and she was, of course, per­fectly in­de­pen­dent.”

Corita Ar t Cen­ter

A NEW EX­HI­BI­TION, “Some­day Is Now,” looks at the art of Corita Kent, shown circa 1964.

Track 16 Galler y

“LOVE, JUS­TICE” is an ex­am­ple of Corita Kent’s art­ful call for peace.

Corita Ar t Cen­ter

ONE OF Kent’s most fa­mous art­works, “En­riched Bread,” turns the im­agery of a well-known brand into a com­men­tary on hunger and poverty.

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