A Pop Of Corita
A Pop Of Corita
The Spiritual Activism of Artist & Woman Religious Corita Kent
by Elissa Melaragno
Asked by my friend Linda DeHart to interview her for a StoryCorps series on those who knew Corita Kent, I was drawn into a world of which I knew little. Sadly, all I remembered of Kent was that she was the artist nun who created splashy, happy, and colorful compositions like the rainbow-painted gas tank that greets all who drive into Boston, MA from the south. Her popular cheerful images, like the “I Love You Very Much” print, make one smile. But that was all I knew until I walked into the opening of Corita Kent and the Language of Pop at the Harvard Art Museums. Two years in the making, this exhibit’s purpose is to educate the ignorant such as myself and to solidify the place for this petite, quiet woman in what was formerly considered the all-male world of Pop Art.
Masterfully exhibited alongside artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg, Kent’s art shows with a brilliance that makes the question of why she has not previously been recognized as a significant Pop Artist ridiculously blatant. In fact, her art has more life, spirit, and voice than that of others who have been lauded in the genre, which makes me wonder why she has been overlooked by so many. Because she was a woman? Because she was a Catholic nun? Regardless, thanks to the dedication of curator Susan Dackerman, Kent will never be overlooked again.
Kent’s art was being exhibited in New York City in the 1960s long before she moved from Los Angeles to Boston. Kent’s voice as an activist was heard long before she left the religious life for the secular. Rather than taking to the streets, she masterfully incited thought and action through screen prints in ways that only a woman religious could. While the boys of the Pop Art were creating more rigid, less reflective statements about the popular culture of the 1960s, Corita and her students were exploring the hand of God at work within our popular culture. They were pairing supermarket ads and product advertisements with the words of great thinkers carefully scrawled across the print, and they were asking questions of great spiritual significance. Newsweek and Harper’s Bazaar heralded her accomplishments, but, until now, history has overlooked the contribution and significance of her work. She is no doubt one of the great artistic innovators of the period.
Kent was a close friend of Daniel Berrigan, the beloved activist priest. In one piece, Kent inscribed an entire sermon of Berrigan’s across the bottom of the 140-inch print series that boldly shouts, “POWER UP,” words taken from a Richfield Oil slogan. The sermon begins, “Doesn’t the bible call truth bread? We’re starved…” With large commissions and over 700 prints, Kent had a passion for creating art. Her art made one have to think about one’s own place amidst the rapidly changing world of the decade 1960s—it became the centerpiece of her activist efforts.
Having immersed in a deeper understanding of her work, I find myself mesmerized not only with her bold use of color but also the playful freedom with which she cut right through the rigid structures so often created by popular culture. Her works free the imagination towards an explosion of deep spiritual thought. Corita nurtured and cultivated her faith. She saw the spirit of God as activist in everything as exemplified in the prints we have chosen to share here.
Images printed with permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles and Harvard Art Museums. Corita Kent and the Language of Pop is on display at the Harvard Art Museums through January 3, 2016. §
Elissa Melaragno (Editor) has been a professional visual artist for thirty years with her works primarily on display as public arts, especially in healthcare settings. Elissa uses her training in spiritual direction and several holistic healing modalities to inform her work as an art instructor. She incorporates creativity, the mandala, and inner exploration as a source of growth, healing, and vocational enrichment into her teaching.