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Things to know about Corita Kent

House of Illustration holds the UK’s biggest ever show of work by Corita Kent, featuring 70 screenprints. House of Illustration is a small gallery founded by Sir Quentin Blake, an English cartoonist, illustrator and children’s writer, in 2014. The UK’s biggest ever show sounds like a good advertising shout-out. 70 (screenprints) looks a solid number of artworks to represent any artist. But who is Corita Kent?

· Corita Kent (1918 – 1986) was a Los Angeles printmaker and practising Catholic nun, educator, and advocate for social justice.

Frances Elizabeth Kent was born in 1918 to an Irish Catholic family with six children living in Iowa. Five years later they moved to Los Angeles. Upon completing her Catholic education, Frances entered the Immaculate Heart of Mary Religious Community and took the name Sister Mary Corita. She obtained her BA there in 1941 and earned a MA in Art History at the University of Southern California in 1951. Between 1938 and 1968 Kent lived and worked in the Immaculate Heart Community, becoming the chair of its art department in 1964. In 1962, Pope John XXIII’s Vatican II decree on the “Adaptation and Renewal of the Religious Life” called for movement towards modern values. However, tensions between the order and church leadership were mounting, with a critic to the college as “liberal”. In 1968, Kent returned to secular life. She remained active in social causes until her death in 1986.

· Kent’s work stands side by side with the work of the Pop Art giants – artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake.

Corita Kent was one of the most innovative pop artists of the 1960s, battling the political and religious establishments and revolutionizing graphic design. Her screenprints can be found in major art museums in America, including The Museum of Modern Art,Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Gallery of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art.

· Kent used advertising slogans, poetry and song lyrics, as well as biblical verses and inspirational quotes, to create vibrant screenprints with political messages about racism, poverty and injustice.

Corita Kent carefully composed pictorial space combining, extracting, highlighting, layering elements from a wide array of cultural source, including writings by Martin Luther King, Jr., Jefferson Airplane, Albert Camus, Rainer Maria Rilke, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen; Daniel Berrigan, Gertrude Stein and E.E. Cummings being favourites. She also adopted package design motifs, billboard signs, ‘the commonest of the everyday’.

Distinct means developed to create a visual dialogue between texts in her screenprints:

Language is excerpted, disassembled, reassembled, recontextualized.

Typography is distorted, turned inside out, reversed, rotated, variously spatialised.

Letterforms are ungrounded, floating, and interlocking.

Colours are bold, bright, flat, opaque, transparent, intense, luminous, fluorescent.

The graphic space in some prints is layered with handwritten quotes integrated into individual letters.

Nowhere - Now Here - No, Where? Just trying to adopt Corita Kent's style. Layering, handwritted 'Let it Be' by the Beatles on the question mark, clear typography, flat colours. Does it look Kent-ish?

· Kent created the largest copyrighted work of art in the artworld.

Originally created in 1971, the Rainbow Swash consists of orange, yellow, red, blue, green, and purple stripes strewn over a white background on the tank. On the left side of the blue strip, there’s a subtle profile of an eye and nose and seemingly long-pointed goatee beneath. Considering Kent’s background and the politically tumultuous times, some people took on the belief that the profile was a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in protest against the Vietnam War. She denied the allegations, but either for its enjoyable aesthetics or long-lasting message, the piece remained right there for Boston’s millions of daily commuters. Even in 1992 when they tore down the original tank, the Swash was immediately reproduced on a new, similar-looking tank.

Initially the original design was painted on an 8-inch scale model, which 20 painters reproduced it on the 140-foot (43 m) high tank using 2,000 gallons (~7,600 litres) of paint. To Corita Kent, her rainbow was a symbol of hope for a bright future for the city.

· Love Stamp is probably Kent’s most recognizable work.

The characteristic splashes of colours that public enjoyed on the Gas Tank were featured on 1985 Love Stamp. More than 700 million stamps were sold.

· Kent considered herself more like a teacher than an artist.

She had been teaching for about 32 years, making the college’s art department flourish around 1960s. To list a few of her duties: running the art department, conducting workshops, researching the writers and great philosophers, lecturing, organizing lecture series. Kent’s teaching brought contact with figures such as filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, composer John Cage, architect Buckminster Fuller, astronomer James Elliot, musicologist Leonard Stein, graphic designer and filmmaker Saul Bassand designers Charles and Ray Eames, who became her close friends and champions.

Her teaching methods combined many different tasks geared to developing observational consciousness and analytic skills. Task 1: Select a photograph and then write twenty-five ways the photograph differed from what it recorded. Task 2: A class, each person with a Coke bottle in front of them, might sit in a circle for an hour, and look at it. Task 3: List one hundred reasons why they are taking art in a liberal art college. In general, the rules of the IHC art department reflecting Kent’s ideology motivated students and liberated them academic traditions of what art can be.

Many former students cite Kent’s teaching as life changing in so far as she attuned their attention to the aesthetics of everyday life and their actions within that, no matter what their activity and profession.

On the other side, the mutual stimulation and influence flowing between Corita and her students is palpable in their collective artistic output. The creative environment at the IHC art departments brought Kent’s work into fruition.

Kent did not subscribe to the notion that art is timeless. However, her artwork and teaching methods echo to this day. I have placed 10 rules by Corita Kent on my wall, have you?

Based on Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita by Julie Ault, Four Corners Books, 2006

Documentary on Corita Kent

Corita Kent: Power Up

House of Illustration

2 Granary Square, King's Cross, London

Until 19 May, 2019

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