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  Sister Mary Corita Kent  (1918 - 1986)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/California/Iowa / Canada      Known for: serigraphs, design, art education

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Corita Kent is primarily known as Sister Mary Corita Kent

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Ad Code: 3
AskART Artist
"Why do you not think of Him?", serigraph, 222.25" x 34.25"
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Sister Mary Corita Kent, once the nation's best-known nun, won fame as a serigraph artist. Her bright, colorful silk-screen prints were the rage of the 1960s. She designed the United States' first "Love" postage stamp.

Mary Corita Kent was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1918, then moved with her family to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1920. Two years later they moved to Los Angeles, where she grew up. She joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary there in 1938. She received her bachelor's degree from Immaculate Heart College in 1941, followed by a master's in art history 10 years later from the University of Southern California.

Popularly known as "Sister Mary Corita," she turned to the silk-screen process in 1950. Her large compositions combine quotations, often from the Bible or modern poetry, with religious or secular images. During her career as an artist and teacher, Kent also designed greeting cards and book covers. She achieved fame in the early 1960s with her brightly colored silkscreen posters. Some of her work includes excerpts from the writings of Carl Jung, e.e. cummings and Rainer Maria Rilke. She began adding words to her designs because, she said, "I have been nuts about words and their shape since I was very young."

Sister Mary Corita became one of our country's most celebrated artists and gained international fame through her creative, magical use of color and words. As a muralist, her critically acclaimed 40-foot mural for the Vatican Pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair also brought her worldwide attention.

She taught at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, the art department of which, under her creative direction, established itself as a center for the art of learning as well as the learning of art. Buckminster Fuller described his visit to the department as "among the most fundamentally inspiring experiences of my life."

As a teacher, she was known as a challenger, a free-thinker, a celebrator, an encourager. She taught her students that one of the most important rules, when looking at art or watching films, was never to allow yourself to blink. One might miss something extremely valuable. And what the students cherished most about her competence as a teacher was that she always made eye-contact with each individual, giving herself to each charge entirely.

Perhaps becoming a celebrity came too soon for the nun. It was something she never asked to be, but she carried the burdens of stardom with grace, kindness, and loving warmth. She never was arrogant, and accepted the status because she believed it would help the College of the Immaculate Heart where she was teaching, and she thought it would be good for her community of Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Sister Corita became a symbol of the modern nun and was often the target of conservative Catholics, particularly when she turned to regular street dress in 1967.

During the late Sixties, the Church, like the rest of the country, was going through changes which angered, threatened, and tormented many of the faithful. The art of Sister Mary Corita began to infuriate certain conservative church leaders. She was considered dangerous. Once she was accused of being a "guerilla with a paint brush"; guerilla meaning an enemy who used familiar images to make blatant statements. It is doubtful if this attack offended the artist. She was a resister, a quiet activist who knew her soul, and did what she could to make the world a better place in which to live.

All of this took a toll on Corita and the entire community, who had chosen to experiment and make what were considered "drastic" changes. Even before this, Corita was plagued with an acute case of insomnia. Witnesses who knew her well testified that she would not sleep for three or four nights on end, and that it was evident with every step she took. She was exhausted by all she'd agreed to take upon herself, and was unable to "let go" of her duties "after hours." Father Daniel Berrigan said of her: "Corita was the guardian angel of the world. Therefore she was called to be sleepless."

After 32 years as an Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister, she began to ponder a leave of absence, perhaps hoping to resurrect her drooping spirit. After her sabbatical, she informed the community that she would not return, and this literally broke the hearts of her Sisters, who loved her dearly. More than that, they needed her vitality. But Corita felt that she needed time for healing.

Collectors and fans of Corita's works -- those eye-pleasing, colorful, impressive, inspirationally blatant messages -- would certainly think that the artist was a very happy person. This simply was never true. She, herself, often admitted that she was down more than up.

After more than 30 years as a nun, Kent returned to private life in December 1968, moving to Boston to devote herself to her art, and opening a gallery. For the next eighteen years Corita created over 50 commissions, in addition to over 400 new editions of serigraphs. Special projects included the landmark 150-foot rainbow painting on the Boston Gas Company's natural gas tank; numerous murals, billboards, book covers and book illustrations, logos, greeting cards, etc. In addition, she published nine books of her own. She also created complete editions of serigraphs for fundraising use by numerous organizations dedicated to peace and social justice. She won dozens of art prizes and saw her work hung in many of the world's major art museums. Critics praised her prints as joyful, exuberant, bold and radiant.

Around 1977, the artist developed cancer, and though her doctor gave her only six months to live, she knew that she had major art pieces to accomplish before she died --nine years later. Corita passed away in 1986, bequeathing her remaining prints, as well as the copyrights to all her works, to support the good works of the Immaculate Heart Community. The Corita collection was cared for and administrated by volunteers until 1997.

The art of Sister Mary Corita is in the permanent collections of over 40 major museums including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; Art Institute of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Boston Museum of Fine Arts; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:

Corita Kent also known as Sister Corita, gained international fame for her vibrant serigraphs during the 1960s and 1970s.  A Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, she ran the Art Department at Immaculate Heart College until 1968 when she left the Order and moved to Boston.  Corita's art reflects her spirituality, her commitment to social justice, her hope for peace and her delight in the world around us.

Born Frances Kent in 1918 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, she grew up in Los Angeles and joined the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1936, taking the name Sister Mary Corita.

She graduated from Immaculate Heart College in 1941 and then taught grade school in British Columbia.  In 1946 she returned to Immaculate Heart College to teach art. In 1951, she received a master's degree in art history from the University of Southern California; it is also the year she exhibited her first silkscreen print. Corita's earliest works were largely iconographic; known as neo-gothic they borrowed phrases and depicted images from the Bible.

By the 1960s, she was using popular culture such as song lyrics and advertising slogans but in 1965 her Peace on Earth Christmas exhibit in IBM's New York show room was seen as too subversive and Corita had to amend it.

Every August, during the three weeks between semesters, she and her students would work round the clock printing new serigraph designs by the hundreds.  In 1968 Corita decided to devote herself entirely to making art. She left the Order and Los Angeles, and moved to Boston's Back Bay. She made numerous commissioned works (Westinghouse Group W ads, book covers and murals) and continued to create her own serigraphs (over 400) in the next 18 years.  Still using exuberant splashes of color, the tone of her work became more generally spiritual and introspective.  Watercolor plein air paintings and great floral silk screens dominated her later works.  Corita remained active in social causes and designed posters and billboards for Share, the International Walk for Hunger, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Amnesty International.

The Boston Gas tank on the Southeast Expressway still bears her famous 150-foot rainbow swash, which is a similar to her design for the 1985 Love Stamp. On Sept. 18, 1986. Sister Corita lost her battle with cancer in 1986 and died in her home in Boston.


Information courtesy of Stuart Tyrnauer

These Notes from AskART represent the beginning of a possible future biography for this artist. Please click here if you wish to help in its development:
Born in Fort Dodge, IA on Nov. 20, 1918. Sister Mary Corita (neé Frances Elizabeth Kent) studied at the Otis Art Institute while in Los Angeles in the mid-1930s. She died in Boston, MA in September 1986. Exh: LACMA, 1951; Pasadena Museum, 1960; La Jolla Museum, 1970.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Los Angeles Times, 12-23-1966; Social Security Death Index (1940-2002).
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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