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Corita Kent: Life lessons from the Pop art nun

(Circle Culture Gallery/Corita Art Center)

(Circle Culture Gallery/Corita Art Center)

The American holy sister who found divine inspiration in advertising has a new retrospective in Berlin. Can she help us see the spiritual in consumer culture?

“Look at this; and then look again, and see anew.” These were the instructions from Sister Corita Kent to her students – at a carwash in Los Angeles.

Everything was a source of inspiration for the nun who taught art at the city’s Immaculate Heart School from 1947 to 1968, and who helped to establish screenprinting as a fine art medium. From street hoardings to scripture, she turned phrases and graphic patterns into striking prints.

Her work – which is held in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – is currently on show at a retrospective in Berlin. Ranging from the bright, simplified forms of the 1960s to more sophisticated pieces from the ‘70s that turned manipulated photographs into silkscreen prints, the exhibition reveals a spiritual take on consumer culture.

Unlike some Pop artists who used the trappings of materialism to point out its flaws, Sister Corita elevated advertising logos and signage to the level of the divine. Believing that anything ‘good’ had a religious quality, she combined brand packaging with biblical lines, song lyrics and quotes from writers including Albert Camus, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gertrude Stein and EE Cummings.

As well as car washes, Kent took her students to supermarkets and the home of her friends, the designers Charles and Ray Eames. Her social circle also included graphic artist Saul Bass, director Alfred Hitchcock and visionary architect and thinker Buckminster Fuller.

Her philosophy of peace and love chimed with the social movements of the 1960s and as the decade wore on her work increasingly addressed issues like civil rights and the Vietnam War. A frustrated radical in a conservative organisation, she left the church in 1968.

 A spiritual outlook continued in Sister Corita’s work until her death in 1986. She designed the 1985 United States Postal Service annual ‘love’ stamp.

(Corita Art Center)

(Corita Art Center)

“Her art itself is very didactic,” says Sasha Carrera, the director of the Corita Art Center, in a video to accompany the exhibition. “So even in the work she’s teaching us to be better people, or teaching us how to be responsible citizens: how to care for one another, how to care for the earth. And these are the same values that she held as a nun. So it’s all interwoven.”

Sister Corita’s background gave her a unique perspective as an artist. In her book Learning By Heart: Teachings To Free The Creative Spirit, she offered up new ways of using art as a form of social justice.

“There was this statement that she loved: ‘We have no art; we do everything as well as we can.’,” says Carrera. “I think the idea is that everybody is an artist – we all have a creative spark.”

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