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.
- 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.
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.
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.