Corita Kent: The Pop Art Nun

At a time when pop art was finding its footing and the nation was in a state of upheaval, Sister Corita helped make art more accessible to the public. This episode charts her art practice and her effect on generations after her. Using the classroom as a tool for a more approachable way to think about art, Sister Corita has inspired and motivated an entire new generation of graphic designers.

AIRED: June 21, 2021 | 0:18:16


-They had something called Mary'’s Day, which a European celebration.

I think a lot of people think this is a protest,

but it'’s a celebration to bring awareness which were great concepts,

and their focus was world hunger.

I think when you talk about Corita'’s work and how special it truly is,

it'’s looking at the future generations that can pull from her work.

I think that her pieces are as relevant today as they were when she created them.

Oh, the rules. Pick your favorite rule. [chuckles]

People tend to really resonate with this.

I think a lot of artists really resonate with this.

She asked her students, "What is important

to you in both the teacher and your role as a student?"

She took from that and created the 10 Rules.

People tend to have a favorite rule, or what they'’re drawn to,

or whatever speaks to them that day is what they needed to hear.


-Rule 1, find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.

Rule 2, general duties of a student, pull everything out

of your teacher, pull everything out of your fellow students.

Rule 3, general duties of a teacher, pull everything out of your students.

Rule 4, consider everything an experiment.

Rule 5, be self-disciplined.

Discipline has to do with being a disciple.

This means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them.

To be disciplined is to follow in a good way.


-We see, in the 1960s, graphic designers were trying

to distinguish themselves from commercial artists.

Then you have somebody like Sister Corita who has a real

desire for the church to reach out and help the community,

bringing in all kinds of public figures and all of the art

and design community that'’s happening here in Los Angeles.

-There'’s a great book, which I'’ll pass around and you can take a look at.

There'’s one statement in it which is from the Balinese.

They say, "We have no art.

We do everything as well as we can, so that you don'’t

have art off in a little niche someplace.

You have no distinction between what is art and what is not art.

You do everything as well as you can."

-Corita was always an artist.

There'’s these wonderful stories of her as a child with her family

and her father always pushing her to think outside of the box.

She was part of the Immaculate Heart College but she also was a nun.

She was born Frances Kent, but she actually took

on the name Corita, which means little heart.

From the time she joined the order, she was known as Sister Mary Corita.

What is really unique too for the time period

is that she went to school for art as well.

She actually got her master'’s from USC.

She was the head of the Art Department there at the Immaculate Heart

College, which was the epicenter for a lot of forward thinkers.

A lot of her work is inspired by the conversations that happened there.

-She had a lot of influences that were coming from New York because

of Andy Warhol, but she also had local artists like Charles and Ray Eames.

The mentorship she had, especially with Charles Eames, really

influenced her way of thinking about a kind of visual freedom.

-She sees Andy Warhol. She goes, "Wow. Everyday art."

The stuff that'’s in grocery stores.

She sees these graphics that are coming from the every day, and she begins

to see these messages as particularly ones that she can use.

-A work of art makes you alert to what you haven'’t noticed

in the ordinary things so that the distinction narrows between

what is ordinary and what is extraordinary.

-In the 60s, you see her work take a turn.

It becomes a little more about the typography.

-Sister Corita really begins to look at the commercial use of graphics,

sees how bold they are, and begins to flip that on its head and actually use

those instrumentally in very different kinds of messages.

-One of the ways that she did that is by taking imagery, taking

lettering, taking text and messages from everyday life, from street signs,

from newspapers, from packaging and advertising,

and reworking them to actually create new messages.

-Corita, who didn'’t have digital technology, would take type

and actually wrap it around boxes to create a dimensional shape,

then photograph them and make that a flat thing

that she would then get onto a screen print.

-She'’s thinking about language and the way that we communicate with one

another, but then also just finding beauty in the typography in the way

that those letters lay on that paper and then the way that she'’s layering them.

-Serigraph to this silkscreen print.

The word serigraph means drawing on silk.

You form your stencil on the silk and print through that stencil,

so you'’re printing through the silk onto a piece of paper.

-She'’s physically manipulating this text in a way that'’s really groundbreaking.

-By taking stencils and moving them and reshaping them so they have

this wavy distorted effect, you really broke free of that grid.

You broke free of this era of modernism out of the 50s and the early

60s where everything was really structured and very rigid.

-When I look at Sister Corita Kent'’s work, it'’s so beautiful.

Sometimes, it'’s so simple.

-When people looked at how she mixed photographs and lettering

and color and montage, first off, it blows your mind.

-Sister Corita'’s often lumped in with other pop artists.

That'’s true on an aesthetic sense, but I think

that her work had such deep messages within it.

Corita'’s work is playful and powerful at the same time.

There aren'’t many other designers that can do that.


-There is a pretty famous print of hers where she is

actually referencing the packaging of Wonder Bread.

Inside of the circle, she has written in a quote

from Gandhi, "There are so many hungry people."

Basically, in this idea that there could be the possibility

to feed them all in this commercial image of bread gets

adopted by Corita to be this revolutionary message

that is talking about feeding and sustaining people,

but is also referencing her experience as a Catholic nun

and the Christian image of breaking bread as a spiritual and symbolic

expression of nourishing humanity.

-Sometimes you can take the whole of the world in,

and sometimes you need a small piece to take in.

I think that'’s really what a work of art is,

even though we don'’t have works of art anymore.

It'’s a small piece that you can digest, which gives

you a kind of idea of the richness that is in the whole.

-She had this practice that she would do with her students called the viewfinder.

-She would have the students hold up the viewfinder as exercise in cropping

and looking at gas stations science, or the grocery store, or supermarket.

I think there'’s something about the visual landscape of Los Angeles,

of Southern California, that would inspire her and her students.

-She was a teacher first and then an artist.

A lot of her writing is about creating a space in which

students felt comfortable and free and open to experiment.

She was all about opening up the mind to new

ways of thinking and seeing the world.

-Part of her work and what she was interested in was also putting

her graphics, not just in her screen prints and her serigraphs,

but also organizing parades, demonstrations, marches with her students

where they would perform their graphics in public space as a reflection back

on the turmoil and the dynamism and the possibility

that was happening specifically in Los Angeles.


-If you can think of Hollywood in the late

60s, it'’s a very groovy time, but also really,

there'’s a lot of turbulent things happening here in California.

There is some calm in chaos in the conversations

that she was partaking with some of these forward thinkers.

"What does change mean? What does hope mean? What is social justice?"

You see that in a lot of her pieces, particularly in the 60s.

They seem to be a direct reaction to what'’s happening in Los Angeles.

-She was moved by the anti-war movement, by the social justice movement.

She had a very unique style that she brought to the table.

It took a while for her artwork to penetrate

a broader social justice movement, but it did.

-The Watts uprising occurs and she takes the cover of the Los Angeles

Times, which essentially blames the African-American community.

She flips that on its side and then includes a quote from

a gentleman that had been marching in Selma at that time.

It'’s a real direct reaction.

It'’s one of her first pieces that she starts almost

in a way reporting what'’s happening in the world.


-She particularly gets politically activated about the Vietnam war.

Her work begins to change from spiritual

messages into very political messages.

[background noise]

-A Yellow Submarine is actually what this is titled, this yellow submarine.

Here, you'’ll see Vietnam flipped on its side and you see the text slightly broken.

Then here you have the Lennon Mat Kearney lyric that she attributes to them.

I think printmaking was almost conceptual practice for her.

How do you get your ideas out into the world as fast

as possible, and the fact that the paper is really democratic?

Not everybody feels comfortable going into a museum or a gallery.

It feels like maybe a language that you don'’t know how to speak.

Here'’s somebody who demystifies that to some

degree, I think that speaks to a lot of her ethos

that she exhibited through her lifetime of accessibility, through art.

-Short and instructive as a work of art is, I think it was shot

and said that art is the only thing that could educate painlessly.

-One of the things that'’s exciting about her work is that it allows

people of all different types to be engaged with art and graphic design.

A lot of her legacy was making this kind of work accessible.

Not just to the people who were viewing it, but those who might want to make it.

-Part of the legacy of what Sister Corita was doing at Immaculate Heart

was somebody likes Sister Karen, who goes on to start self-help graphics.

-Sister Karen was a student of Sister Corita Kent.

-Sister Karen invented the Barrio Mobile, where

they would bring screen-printing to communities

that didn'’t necessarily have the best access to education.

They were helping groups in Los Angeles that didn'’t have the best

access to art or any other resources, but they sure had a lot to say.

-Here'’s this incredibly innovative way of engaging

community that these artists were creating in the 70s.

That approach to working with community is something

that'’s so critical and core to what self-help graphics is.

-Essentially, we were part of the Chicano Art Movement,

so it was a way of expressing a culture and who

the artists were through their visual images.

-In the early 70s, you have a community

that is experiencing the east LA walkouts, which was an incredible

student movement had just happened here on the east side.

The Chicano Moratorium had just happened.

There'’s a lot of communal trauma that'’s being experienced on a national level.

We'’re dealing with the Vietnam War, and here

locally, there'’s a lot happening on the east side.

The Chicano community as a whole, I think, is feeling various forms of oppression.

That is the context that self-help graphics comes up in.

Sister Karen as a Franciscan nun, I think saw an opportunity,

and interestingly actually, had to convince

her order that self-help graphics

was a form of fulfilling her spiritual mission.

I think she was really able to make the argument that art

is life, and this has to be part of people'’s lives,

and this is the service that we'’re bringing to the community,

and that'’s then how it fulfills her mission.

-It was like bringing art into life and making art part

of life, which I think is really the critical element

that we have as an example from the Chicano Art Movement,

that art isn'’t just something that somebody teaches

out of a book or that only a few people practice, art is a part of the life.

-Really just understanding art and culture as being critical to somebody'’s

everyday life is absolutely part of what Sister Karen imbued on the organization.

I do see that influence in terms

of her connection to being a Sister of Corita Kent

and having that understanding and approach to engaging community on a broader level.


-Welcome guys. It'’s really nice that you came.

We prepared some things to do with you.

How many of you have heard about Corita Kent before?

The more I got engaged into her work, the more

I got interested in her pedagogy because this is

really what drives the fact that the work is for everyone.

-You can'’t talk about Corita without talking about her pedagogies,

the way that she shaped community inside of her classroom and outside in the world

is something that is reverberating through design education right now.

-I absolutely think that the influence of Corita is very much present

in what self-help graphics was

in those earlier years, but I think even now,

nearly 50 years later, there'’s absolutely ripple effects.

-You may need just a bit more ink, so if you want

to grab a little bit from here.

-self-help graphics today is still continuing that printmaking legacy.

To prove that that is possible, the way that Sister Karen had set out

while holding space for the broader community and the community at large.

-Part of what I think is important about the connection between

Sister Corita and Sister Karen, who started self-help graphics,

is this Matra lineage of design education.

-What is that ripple effect in the world when you have these

important historical figures, specifically women in history?

I really truly believe that Corita was one of those.

-I think that'’s actually something that'’s a huge part of California,

that women have been pioneers and leaders in design education.

Corita is a main fixture of this image of activism,

design history, and design making in California.

-Rule 6, nothing is a mistake, there'’s no win and no fail, there'’s only make.

Rule 7, the only rule is work.

If you work, it will lead to something.

It'’s the people who do all of the work all

of the time who eventually catch on to things.

Rule 8, don'’t try to create and analyze

at the same time, there are different processes.

Rule 9, be happy whenever you can manage it, or as the ad

says, enjoy yourself, it'’s wider than you think.

Finally, in John Cage'’s words, we'’re breaking all

the rules, even our own rules, and how do we do that?

By leaving plenty of room for x quantities.

-This program was made possible in part by City of Los Angeles,

Department of Cultural Affairs, LA County Department of Arts and Culture,

and the California Arts Council.



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