THE BLOG

She Was an Artist, She Was a Nun, She is Sister Corita Kent

06/16/2015 07:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

Have you ever fantasized about taking a time machine back to the 1960s? Are you old enough to remember this hippie era of Flower Children? Boy, do I have a treat for you. Let's go for a short ride to Pasadena Museum of California Art to see their just-opened exhibition with art that makes you swear you can hear the beat of music, the marching steps of a political rally, and crowds chanting "Make love, not war! Oh yes! Make love, not war!"

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Before I introduce you to this solo exhibition, which already traveled to several museums before coming here to Pasadena, to its final, fifth stop, I want to assure you that in spite of my newfound love for this particular artist, I remain a faithful atheist. Why atheist? Hmm. Because I am talking about a very special woman who was an artist and who was a nun. Yes, I am talking about the one and only Sister Corita Kent (1918 - 1986).

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She was born in 1918 to a lower middle class, staunchly Catholic family, and raised with five siblings. She attended parochial schools from an early age, and some of her favorite teachers were members of a nearby community of teaching nuns. So, it didn't come as a surprise that Corita herself became a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and started to teach in the art department of Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles.

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This beautifully installed exhibition, with its couple hundred artworks on display, gives a very tangible impression of Sister Corita's prolific career as a "designer, teacher, feminist, civil-rights and anti-war activist." Looking at her posters vibrating with bright colors and passion for faith and politics, one understands why she became one of the most popular graphic artists of the 1960s and 70s.

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So many visual artists of today use text as part of their imagery, but not many of them can compete with the effectiveness of Corita Kent when she delivers a visual and verbal punch like: "Be" "(A Little) More Careful" "Of Love" "Than Of Everything." And she's also not shy about using advertising slogans, grocery store signage, newspaper and magazine headlines, along with philosophical and theological texts.

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On occasion, she quotes famous writers and poets, but one particular poster -- with the face of a saint with a bullet hole between his eyes -- stopped me in my tracks. In this case, she chose to print the English translation of a poem by Soviet-era, dissident poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko with the title, "You Shoot At Yourself, America." On a nearby wall, there is another anti-violence poster printed by Sister Kent, this one a few months after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Even a half century later, this image sends shivers down your spine.

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At the height of her popularity, Corita was on the cover of Newsweek Magazine's 1967 Christmas issue. The next year, she left her religious order and moved to Boston, where she lived and continued to work as an artist until her death in 1986.

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There is not much information about the reason of Corita's parting with her nun's habit. Looking at works done in her later years, I see her achieving certain technical virtuosity, but somehow I am missing her early, punchy, abstract compositions with their timeless appeal. Her personal life story is so rich, so intriguing, I wonder why Hollywood isn't jumping to make a movie titled An Artist, a Nun, Sister Corita Kent.

To learn about Edward's Fine Art of Art Collecting Classes, please visit his website. You can also read The New York Times article about his classes here, or an Artillery Magazine article about Edward and his classes here.

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Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.