Corita Kent: the radical nun who became ‘Warhol with a conscience’

Kent subverted consumerism in her art and annoyed the church with her ideas

Fri, Jul 11, 2014, 11:34

The campus buildings oat LA’s Immaculate Heart College are decorated with huge, colourful posters of food – rows of shiny, stylised apples and pears, giant labels from canned peaches, supermarket price tags magnified a hundred times.

Students and their teachers (the latter group mostly nuns and priests) have decorated their hair and draped their clothes with garlands of poppies, roses and dahlias. They picnic, wave balloons and sing and dance in circles on the grass, in the sunshine, to celebrate the Virgin Mary, to celebrate food, and to remember the people who go hungry.

The scene is from Mary’s Day 1964, a short documentary film being screened at the Douglas Hyde Gallery 2 in Trinity as part of Corita, an exhibition of prints and posters by the late Corita Kent.

Kent, described as “Warhol with a conscience”, was a pop artist, an influential art teacher – and a nun for 32 years in a Hollywood convent before she left to become a full-time artist.

Mary’s Day (or the Feast of the Blessed Virgin, as it was called here – the difference in titles speaks volumes) was shot at the Californian college at the time of Lyndon B Johnson’s so- called war on poverty.

It was the beginning of the flower children, before Altamont, before Manson. Watching it now, you marvel at the idealism. It shows how radical Kent was, and at the same time how much a product of her time and place.

Like Warhol, she co-opted the everyday graphics on the packaging of US consumer goods, but, influenced by the anti-war and civil-rights movements of the 1960s, she subverted them in order to underline the importance of social justice and creativity and community.

She made hundreds of screen prints to communicate her message as widely as possible, as a way to “invigorate and inspire all people who have to live with the onslaught of advertising”.

Mostly made in bold, primary colours, almost all her work incorporated bits of text. She loved the word – in every sense. It was she who made the poster that read: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Others had quotes from diverse sources, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Camus, EE Cummings, The Beatles and the Bible.

“I always loved lettering,” she said, “the shape of letters and different types and fonts. And I like that they have two functions: one is the visual function, that linear quality, and then of course they also add meaning.”

For her, “putting words with images is as natural as putting words with music”.

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