The Art Assignment


Art + Life Rules from a Nun

Sister Corita Kent was a master printmaker and teacher, and her rules for artists and teachers are legendary - let’s break them down.

AIRED: March 19, 2019 | 0:13:12

- In a recent video, I made the error of attributing

this list of rules for artists and teachers to John Cage

when it actually originated with Corita Kent,

an amazing artist and also nun

who taught for many years at Immaculate Heart College

in Los Angeles, was a marvelously Innovative print maker,

and made one of the most popular postage stamps of all time.

In celebration of Women's History Month and as my penance

for this mistake, we're gonna take a deeper dive

into the life and work of the person responsible

for the list and the collaborative environment

from which it sprang.

We're also gonna review the 10 rules

which are relevant whether you're an artist or teacher

or really just a person with a pulse.

Kent developed the list while teaching at Immaculate Heart

during the early to mid 1960's

and this version was lettered and printed in 1967

by student David Mekelburg.

It starts with rule one.

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.

The place Kent found and trusted for a while

was the Immaculate Heart of Mary religious community,

which was her home starting at the age of 18.

She was born Frances Elizabeth Kent

and became Sister Mary Corita

when she took her vows in joining the Order.

The church and sisterhood provided structure to her life

and support for her work and she blossomed

in the collective environment of this progressive,

as Catholics go, community.

Rule two, general duties of a student:

pull everything out of your teacher,

pull everything out of your fellow students.

Kent was an excellent student,

completing a Bachelor's degree

from Immaculate Heart in 1941 and a Master's in Art History

from the University of Southern California in 1951.

She first learned serigraphy or silkscreen printing

from Maria Artinez, wife of artist Alfredo Ramos Martinez

and then mostly on her own through experimentation.

Kent's mentor was Sister Magdalen Mary,

the head of the Art Department who encouraged her

to exhibit her prints, which through the 50's,

were densely layered and largely figurative depictions

of religious subjects.

Kent and Sister Mag, as she was called,

traveled together to New York, Europe and Egypt

to add to the school's folk art collection.

Folk art inspired her as did abstract expressionism,

the work of Ben Shahn and her local environment in LA.

Sister Corita drank up the offerings

of her small liberal art school

and as she started teaching there,

her educational philosophy was very much shaped

by its vibrant and symbiotic relationship

between students and teachers.

Kent later wrote that as a student in a class,

you aren't needed to be there

to get grades or pass the course.

You are needed to help make the class.

So the structure is there for you

and you are also the structure.

Your particular gifts help shape it

and that brings us to rule three.

General duties of a teacher,

pull everything out of your students.

Sister Corita was a very demanding teacher

and even called herself a big old task master.

She asked a lot of her students and they gave it.

She was extremely charismatic which helped

and brought tremendous energy

and enthusiasm to everything she did.

Her assignments were unusual and elaborate

in one instance, requiring the collection

of 500 images only as step one

or in another, asking students to make 20 puppets

with a scenario crafted around them over a weekend.

You had to be neat and handle paper properly

so that it didn't crease.

You had to respect technique and turn out

a professional-looking product

and you didn't need fancy tools to do it.

They often carved stamps from erasers,

but if you weren't careful and sliced your finger,

Sister Corita charged you 75 cents per cut.

All art majors were required to be English minors

and they read the classics along with folk tales,

poetry and temporary literature, histories,

oh and also books about art.

Sister Mag asked her students to carry Janson's

History of Art with them at all times,

not to read, necessarily, to glance at

or maybe just absorb something by its proximity and text.

Words were very important to Kent

and she used scripture, literature, poetry and song lyrics

as a springboard for her art.

By 1960, her work had become more abstract,

focused more on color feel and shapes

along with written psalms.

And then in the 1960's, text took over almost completely

and word became image in surprising and imaginative ways.

She saw Andy Warhol's groundbreaking

1962 Soup Can show at Ferus Gallery.

That as well as the loud advertisements of Hollywood

and post World War II American abundance

brought a whole new world of inspiration.

Kent took her students on field trips to the grocery store

where they observed signage, advertising

and collected discarded cardboard boxes for later use.

Students help Kent create her own work

for college art sales.

Her art often combined corporate logos and slogans

with religious text, even referring to the Virgin Mary

as the juciest tomato of them all in a 1964 print.

Kent was very much part of the wider pop art movement

whether it was regarded as such at the time.

With the help of her students, Kent produced grand events

like the Mary's Day Procession that had traditionally been

a state affair, but under her leadership,

became a jubilant celebration and happening,

an occasion to adorn the school,

community and each other with signage and art.

Rule four, consider everything an experiment.

Experimentation was at the core at Kent's work and teaching.

During class outings, Kent encouraged the use

of what she called a finder,

which was either an empty 35 millimeter slide

or a rectangle cut out of a sturdy piece of paper.

It helped to frame views

and focused your attention on that one area,

allowing you to look at life as forms and colors and shadows

without being distracted by content.

A camera lens does this pretty well too, by the way,

but can of course, be its own distraction.

But you could take a finder to a park,

theater, market, parking lot

or any place where there's a lot to see.

The shapes you find could become paintings

or the bits of isolated letters and words

could turn into a screen print.

When looking through a finder,

Kent noticed that words on a flat surface looked dimensional

when viewed from an angle.

She often captured these images through photography

and then made stencils from them for her work.

A trick she liked to use in the classroom

was to show two unrelated films

on adjacent screens simultaneously, watching them repeatedly

but changing the soundtrack each time.

Altogether, they became a new artwork every time,

allowing you to find strange connections between the two.

She called this kind of strategic experimentation plork,

combining the concept of play and work.

The abstract and the concrete, joy and labor.

For Kent, plork is the one responsible act necessary

for human advancement and represents the ecstasy we feel

when work and play are one.

Rule five, be self-disciplined.

This means finding someone wise or smart

and choosing to follow them.

To be disciplined is to follow in a good way.

To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

Kent claimed she found her real teacher

after she finished school and that was Charles Eames.

Both Charles and Ray Eames, his wife,

were profoundly impactful in her life

and she learned from them not just through visits

and classes and phone calls,

but also from observing the lessons of their work,

which included films, buildings, furniture

and their general approach of eradicating the distinctions

between art and life.

The motto of the Immaculate Heart art department

was squarely in line with this ethos.

We have no art.

We do everything as well as we can.

Many voices smart and wise

were invited to the school

to speak to students and teachers.

The Eamses as well as Buckminster Fuller,

Saul Bass, Alfred Hitchcock and of course John Cage

who we'll get to in a moment,

but there were many examples to follow.

Kent was extremely self-disciplined

and demanded the same of her students.

She instructed you to follow the rules exactly

unless you come up with something better.

Much of her own art-making took place during

the three-week break between semesters in August,

a frenzy of activity that unfolded in the basement

of the college or in a workshop across the street.

Art didn't happen when inspiration struck,

but when she found time for it.

Lessen the prestige and the expectations of art, she said,

and turn your endeavors into a good, solid, working job.

Rule six, nothing is a mistake.

There's no win and no fail.

There's only make.

And the closely related rule seven.

The only rule is work.

If you work, it will lead to something.

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

who eventually catch on to things

and Kent did do all the work all of the time.

Along with teaching, she conducted workshops,

exhibited her work, traveled to give lectures,

fielded press and eventually ran the art department.

She was an insomniac and made work whenever she could,

creating large unnumbered editions of her prints

to align with her mission of reaching the widest range

of people and keeping the price low.

Kent made greeting cards, posters, murals and billboards

and all that came not just from her alone,

but out of truly collaborative environment.

She was often the face of the art department

and signed the prints, but many helped her and inspired her

and can be given credit for her renown.

Rule eight, don't try to create

and analyze at the same time.

They're different processes.

In Kent's understanding, to analyze is to take apart.

To create is to put together

and this is why they shouldn't happen simultaneously.

In her book Learning by Heart written with Jan Steward,

Kent offers some guidelines for brainstorming

which I think are worth revisiting

even if you think you know what it means.

The rules are record all ideas as they emerge,

suspend all critical judgment until the end of the session.

Idea of production is 10 times greater

when imagination isn't restricted by judicial attitudes.

Quantity is important.

The more ideas, the greater the likelihood of success.

Set a goal of how many ideas you want to come up with.

Make the number so large

that you will have to stretch to achieve your goal.

Use and build on the ideas of others.

This is often a group activity, of course,

but you can brainstorm alone

with the foremost goal of accepting all ideas

and not censoring yourself.

Kent emphasizes that letting yourself go free,

playing around until something comes

is often very hard work.

That's plork for ya.

Rule nine, be happy whenever you can manage it.

Enjoy yourself.

It's lighter than you think.

Kent's work was and is joyous.

Using bright colors and embracing all things new,

she brought an incredible lightness to subject manner

often considered serious, somber, even,

and fixed firmly in the past.

She brought her religious ideals into the present

and emphasized the importance of celebration.

This didn't preclude critique, however,

and Kent demonstrated her commitment to social justice

by making work about racism and poverty

and in protest to the brutalities of the Vietnam War.

Very much a controversial figure within the church,

she and the free-thinking sisters of Immaculate Heart

were censored and restrained by

their extremely conservative Archbishop.

Kent left the Order and sought dispensation from her vows

in 1968 after taking a sabbatical to Cape Cod

and really enjoying the break.

She said I taught for about 32 years and then I really felt

that I had finished with that.

I was very happy to drop it.

It was a brave act for someone

who had been part of that community since she was 18

and she moved onto Boston

where she sought and found happiness

and the freedom to work independently.

Rule 10, we're breaking all the rules,

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

By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.

John Cage.

Now this one comes directly from Cage.

He was a frequent source of wisdom for Kent and her students

who left plenty of room for X quantities

and all of their classroom and studio experiments.

They broke the rules of art by looking to Los Angeles

not as a morally corrupt wasteland,

but as an ecstatic profusion of messages and material

from which to make new work.

They defied the expectations of what constituted

religious service, of what a nun should be.

Cage didn't originate the list,

but he is largely responsible for popularizing it.

Cage's partner and choreographer Merce Cunningham

kept a copy in the studio where his company rehearsed.

The list ends with some extra hints.

Always be around, come or go to everything.

Always go to classes,

read anything you can get your hands on.

Look at movies carefully often.

Save everything, it might come in handy later.

She didn't mean you should become a hoarder,

but rather a collector of things tangible and intangible.

Walking down the street with open eyes.

She wanted us to see that anything can be source material

and everything can have meaning.

She wanted you to be awake enough to the world

that you can make connections

between the things that you see.

Oh and there's a perfect tack on at the end

which is there should be new rules next week.

After all, rules were important,

but they were never final.

You were encouraged to be flexible

and able to adjust to new conditions.

Pretty good advice for the classroom

and for life in general.


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