“Be happy whenever you can manage it.”
This simple edict, Rule 9 of the Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules conceived by Sister Corita Kent, seems like a straightforward task. Yet, in 2020, a year plagued by a still-raging global pandemic, fervorous social justice movements, and a presidential election the likes of which we’ve never experienced, this rule proves more difficult to uphold each day. In times of uncertainty, we find it’s helpful to recall voices of the past who have lived through similar experiences. One perspective we’ve found ourselves consistently inspired by this year is that of the late Sister Corita Kent, one of pop-art’s most unlikely trailblazers. This season, we worked with longtime collaborator Jordan Butcher of Strange Practice on a collection of graphic tees that pull from themes that were formative to creating the FW20 season. First up is the “Sister Corita” graphic tee which releases on Monday, November 2nd.
Frances Kent’s career choices were limited as a young woman in the 1940’s. In an effort to build a life for herself, Kent joined the Sisters of Immaculate Heart. Immaculate Heart was known for its focus on creativity and originality, a unique proposition in an otherwise regimented way of life. Upon joining the sisterhood, she took the name Sister Mary Corita and enrolled at Immaculate Heart College. After completing a bachelor’s degree, Kent, ever the curious soul, pursued a master’s degree at University of Southern California before returning to Immaculate Heart college to head the art department.
At the helm of the art department, Kent worked to expand the sisterhood's understanding, appreciation, and application of art through a multi-disciplinary approach that tied faith together with activism. In her own more focused work, Kent utilized screen printing and typography to carefully blend philosophy and pop culture, slogans and scripture, and even protest chants with popular music. In the print aptly titled Yellow Submarine, for example, a Vietnam war chant of “Make love, not war” is juxtaposed against the lyrics of the Beatles song Yellow Submarine. The amalgamation of references in her work drew the attention of both the art world and the counter-culture. Alfred Hitchcock, John Cage, Ray & Charles Eames, Saul Bass and Buckminster Fuller are just a few of the art world titans who visited the college and counted themselves among Kent’s ever growing fan base. Protestors also soon became fans and took to the streets with her prints in hand. Against the backdrop of the tumultuous 60’s, this nun was creating powerful works of art for a mostly-secular audience of young revolutionaries and art-world elite.
As the Vietnam War and the pursuit of social justice waged on, Sister Kent’s work became bolder, brighter, and more impactful, matching the rise of her own emboldened activist spirit. The art department soon became a pseudo-production center for her work. Vibrant prints emblazoned the walls of the studio in direct contrast to the stark black and white of the nun’s veils and tunics. Sister Kent’s work, and the work of Immaculate Heart seemed unstoppable, and yet, under the surface, tensions were rising.
Even as Kent’s trajectory proceeded exponentially higher - including a Newsweek cover in 1967 - and the convent’s rise in influence mirrored her own, the Los Angeles archdiocese and cardinal were neither happy nor impressed. The archdiocese decried Immaculate Heart as “liberal" and the cardinal went as far as to label the college and Sister Kent’s work as “communist” and “blasphemous.” In the wake of these comments and further growing tensions, Sister Kent left the convent, returned to secular life, and simply became Corita Kent. The next two decades would be marked by continued success and participation by Kent in Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights movement, and the fight for women’s rights. Right up until she succumbed to cancer in 1986, Corita Kent remained active and vigilant in her pursuit of change.
In the midst of current social revolutions, we must remember that the old guard will be reticent to accept new ideas; but we must trudge on and push for the change we want to see, just as Corita Kent did. It will require our own sacrifices, not dissimilar from Kent’s own decision to leave the convent and everything she knew and held dear behind to continue speaking out for what she believed was right. Her refusal to separate the sacred from the secular in her work is an ideal that we aspire towards: personal beliefs, if important to us, must intersect with and inform day-to-day actions. Corita Kent’s strength, optimism, and unwavering pursuit of righteous ideals should serve as an inspiration to all of us as we go forward into the uncertain future and fight for actionable change.