Lorraine Wild | Slideshows

Sister Corita: The Juiciest Tomato

Sister Corita, somebody had to break the rules, serigraph, 1967

Thanks to Sally Field, off-off Broadway satires and countless drag queens, the image of nuns as silly celibates functions as a sort of harmless anti-Catholicism, detached from any real encounter with, or understanding of the women who actually have committed themselves to the life of a spiritual community. Personally, this always grates a bit, since I was lucky to have attended a Catholic grade school in the 1960s, during the height of the (brief) liberalization of the Church, and many of the nuns I encountered in grade school were extraordinarily talented and compassionate teachers. True, they made us kneel down to make sure that the hems of our uniforms touched the floor: but to me this was seriously outweighed by the good stuff, which included energetic teaching, moral lessons delivered with talk of social and political justice, and great, great passion for music and art. And the nuns were huge fans of a series of silkscreened posters, which were hanging in all of the classrooms.

The designer of those posters, Corita Kent, had been a nun. And although she could not fly, her story is almost as improbable.

A member of Los Angeles' Immaculate Heart Community, and long-time art educator and artist/printmaker, Corita Kent attained a position as close to that of a celebrity as any female artist, much less a nun, could expect to have achieved in the mid-60s. Her work tapped into that particular moment when the Catholic Church was invigorated by the challenge, set by Pope John XXIII in his Vatican II decree of 1962, to renew and rethink its traditions. Corita's work, fusing text and image, provided a visual narrative for this re-energized spirituality, particularly as it strove to engage people in their everyday lives. It also embraced social activism, independent of the strictures of the institutionalized (and, of course, male-dominated) Church. The silkscreen prints that surrounded me in grade school were joyful explosions of appropriated advertising slogans and logos in grocery-store colors — Pop Art reconfigured into messages centered on faith and spiritual joy. They were also aesthetic declarations of religious independence.

Corita Kent's story is convincingly told by Julie Ault in the first monograph on her work, Come Alive: The Spirited Art of Sister Corita. Ault has written about Corita Kent before, and has benefitted from the cooperation of the Immaculate Heart order, which still possesses the archive of this remarkable artist (she entered the convent in 1936 and left in 1968, but continued to work and write until her death in 1986).

Readers of Come Alive may be surprised at the amount of Church history included in Ault's narrative, but the work of Sister Corita that is most admired dates from a specific set of years — between 1963 and 1967 — when the nuns of the Immaculate Heart order were resisting the authoritarian rule of the Cardinal of Los Angeles, James Francis MacIntyre, who was himself ignoring the reforms encouraged by Vatican II.

Conflict between the order and the Cardinal centered on issues of self-governance, ranging from the nuns' desire to wear street clothes instead of habits, to their educational philosophy and participation in social action and protest. Corita's work itself was deemed symptomatic of the insolence of the Immaculate Heart order, and, though she clearly stayed away from the politics of the ongoing fight, her work embodied the spirit of this most heartfelt, genuine and positive rebellion. Corita's poster of 1964, the juiciest tomato of them all, (repurposing a slogan from Del Monte canned tomatoes into praise for the Virgin Mary) was actually declared sacreligious and banned from public display by the Cardinal.

Sister Corita, the juiciest tomato of all, serigraph, 1964

Corita's commitment to the cheap and ordinary medium of the silkscreen print reflected values inherent to her vows of humility and poverty; but the intense visuality of her work, particularly its catholic (small c) use of the vernacular, was both a reaction to her immediate environment, the Pop Art paradise of 1960s Los Angeles street scenes (the same streets that inspired Ed Ruscha, who worked in the same neighborhood) and a uniquely creative invention for addressing the Vatican's turn to the vernacular without succumbing to banality or kitsch. The joy, humor and surprise in Corita's work is a result of her intense compositional skill and the deftness with which she manipulated the visual junk around her. Like the Eameses (with whom she was close), she used a 35mm camera to create a visual archive for reference, inspiration and use, and while her work is two-dimensional and typographic, it is entirely dependent upon a design process driven by camera cropping, framing, and photomechanical manipulation — a process as creatively responsive to contemporary art and design thinking as any of the many more celebrated Pop artists working during those same years.

Corita's "appropriation" (years before the term had critical currency) of the language and images of 1960s advertising in her silkscreens of 1963-67 is particularly interesting. In The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank's study of 1960s business culture in the United States, Frank proposes that American advertisers successfully co-opted the language of hippies and social rebellion to suit the needs of the corporations they served, but that it was not simply, as often believed, a new strategy directed at the youth market. Instead, Frank suggests that business culture saw itself as an agent of change, and identified itself with the language of rebellion and liberation (though for an entirely different set of reasons than, say, anti-war or civil rights protesters) and therefore had no problem speaking the same language as their alleged opposition. This makes Corita's co-co-option even more contrarian: she would take the phrases of advertisings' bad boys (and girls) such as "get with the action" or "power up" — distortions of the language of resistance for a superficial celebration of consumerism — and transform those phrases into sales pitches for radically independent modes of spiritual and social engagement. In Daniel Berrigan's coda to Ault's text, he refers to Corita as a "witch of invention" and there is no doubt that at least in those tumultuous years of the 1960s, her powers of invention seemed supernatural, if not divine. Always, though, they were characterized by a nun's modesty and light touch, her criticisms delivered with bouquets of grace and laughter.

Ault brings up many aspects of Corita's work that even those who have already been stalking eBay and Bookfinder for her publications may not know about: Corita's design and orchestration of temporary exhibitions and celebrations with her students at Immaculate Heart College (and the corporate commissions that they also produced for clients such as IBM); the challenges that came to Sister Corita due to her growing fame, and the inability of the contemporary press to realistically describe the collaborative and democratic nature of her teaching and production. Come Alive draws a vivid picture of the brutal workload imposed on this art-designer as a nun who had pledged her life to service: Corita would not claim to be anything other than a teacher, and her brilliant work was produced in small interstices between obligation and sacrament. Even after she left the order and retreated from her public image as the nun-artist, she continued some work on design commissions, and collected and published thoughts on her (extremely unpretentious) educational philosophy. Her list of 10 art department rules is an all-purpose educator's tool, including the laugh at the end: "there should be new rules next week."

Her slogan (attributed to the Balinese) for the Art Department at Immaculate Heart College was, "We have no art, we do everything as well as we can." Corita's work stands for its sheer graphic invention, the riot of letterforms and color, and the immediacy of its connection to her time and place. One can certainly choose to ignore the specifics of her religious messsages, especially since in her methodology, the forms came first, and the content next. But it all emerged out of the deepest of Corita Kent's spiritual convictions that work was a living meditation, with consciousness and devotion to the soul of the here and now; and if you are searching for "Heroes and Sheroes" (as she called them) here, at this turn of a grim old year toward the dawning of a new one, there may be no better place to start than with this book.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History, Politics, Social Good

Comments [25]

Thank you for this fantastic article! Years ago I found a smallish book at a Goodwill thrift store that immediately caught my eye. It was called "City, Uncity" - poems by Gerald Huckaby illustrated by Corita Kent.
Her work is a constant reminder to me of the how humility can manifest itself in a beautiful way. Such a breath of fresh air among todays towering design egos!
Christopher Roeleveld

Thank you for a great article on an inspiring woman. It's a shame that most faith-based work today is so bland and uninspired. Christianity has such a rich history of art and design, why has it been lost? I hope that we will see a rebirth of spiritual creativity, especially through graphic design and other new media.
Jude Landry

Thanks for the great article!
Talk about the most unlikely of graphic designers... it's nice to have an inside perspective on someone most of us probably don't know anything about.

The Fogg Museum is great! If you live nearby, it's definitely worth the trip. They have archives of prints and other materials that you can look at close up. You just pick it out of their catalog and they will bring it out of the archives for you.

Jude Landry raises an interesting point. There is contemporary art that explores spiritual ideas but it isn't connecting to its audience in the direct way that Corita's did. (Though it has to be admitted that some of her work, especially after the years described above, was bland). I worked on a book published by University of California in 2004 titled Buddha Mind and Contemporary Art that collected work that addressed another spiritiual tradition, and it occurred to me then that (a) there were no designers represented in the book and, (b) that the work existed outside of any "official" sanctioned church (though in Buddhism that's pretty standard). Actually, Corita (and her sisters) were pretty much flying solo, but she surely tapped into her audience despite that. With the resurgence of religion in so many aspects of contemporary culture, it is surprising that we do not see more graphic design reflective of a whole range of religious messages. Though maybe the proliferation of socially-conscious projects by so many designers is our contemporary version of this desire to speak the subject of ethics and spirituality.

lorraine wild

It's nice to read about Sister Corita. More people need to learn about--or remember about--her work. It reminds one that optimism can be subtle, critical, and powerful.

It's ironic that this post starts with the author complaining that "harmless anti-Catholicism . . . grates a bit." But then she goes on to toss around uncritical cliches about the past and present of Christians and Christianity.

For example, she calls the 1960s "the height of the (brief) liberalization of the Church." Tell that to the Jesuits in Central America in the 1970s and '80s, or to gay Catholics in certain dioceses in the 1990s, or to opponents of the death penalty and war today. "Liberalization" is a poor word to describe the Church as a whole or at times or even in parts. It fails to capture the diversity of movements and the unique character of local churches. It also suggests that the Church's commitment to peace and social justice was a shining moment, not an ongoing doctrine that stretches back to the second century and is lived out today in myriad ways, both banal and dramatic.

One comment above this one asks, "Christianity has such a rich history of art and design, why has it been lost?" One possibility is the crushing homogeneity of today's urban art scene, in which a "cool" rejection of spirituality, of any tinge of religion, of "humor, joy, and surprise" is de rigeur.

Casual dismissals of religion abound in this post: the Second Vatican Council is summarized as a papal declaration (far from it), social activism is described as outside the "institutional Church" rather than vitalized by Catholic tradition and worship. This is the kind of laziness that causes Sister Corita's genius--and the genius of countless other creators--to be ignored.

It is a shame that Sister Corita cannot be praised without all these qualifications to suggest she was but a marginal Catholic and to reassure the reader we are all "in the know" and share a common contempt for the Church. It would have required real boldness to frame Corita's career in less apologetic terms.
Emerson Beyer

Her prints remind me of the Gee's Bend quilts. Sorry to not be more erudite, but that was the first thing I noticed... irregular rectangles & unlikely color combinations.

Oh, please, Emerson Beyer. I wasn't writing a entire history of the Catholic Church post Vatican II, I was reviewing a book in 1,000 words. I never said Corita was a marginal Catholic (She was a nun, how much more "inside" could she have been?). I never said social action was outside of the Church. My use of the word liberalization in the past tense is in regard to the institutional embrace of of such values - and the Catholic Church, like many other institutions during the 1960s, was overt in this direction. Now things, as everywhere, are more "diverse"; and while there is a living tradition of liberalism embedded in Catholic theology, the institution of the Catholic Church is "diverse," as well.
lorraine wild

Corita's art and memory live on in Los Angeles at the Corita Art Center. We have the largest collection of her serigraphs and watercolors available for exhibitions and for sale. We are on the campus of Immaculate Heart High School, the grounds where she did all of her amazing 60s pop until her departure in 1968. www.corita.org
Sasha Carrera

I was browsing at Lost & Found in Los Angeles (6314 Yucca Street at Vine) the other day and happened upon a Sister Corita Kent show in their gallery next door. It's a small space where they've displayed about 40 or so serigraphs, mixed with waist-high shelves of selected books and other curated ephemera. The prints are wonderful to see so close. Since Lost & Found doesn't have a web site and I neglected to ask how long the show would be up, I recommend calling to ask: 323-856-0921

Emerson, I think you take your criticism a bit too far. And reveal the chip on your shoulder. The "crushing homogeneity of today's urban art scene" is simply that, homogeneity--not exactly a rejection of religion, or "humor, joy and surprise." In fact, the art world seems to be welcoming of personal earnestness, be it about spirituality, politics or even kittens (see: Miranda July/Harrell Fletcher, Sufjan Stevens, Andrea Bowers).

And again, I think you're far too critical of Lorraine. She has hardly framed this post about Sister Corita in apologetic terms. You say, "It is a shame that Sister Corita cannot be praised without all these qualifications to suggest she was but a marginal Catholic." Perhaps she was a marginal Catholic, marginal to the Vatican and others in the Catholic Church's governing body. What evidence do you have to say otherwise?

I do not think that Lorraine, by placing her on the outskirts of the Church, has tried to make it acceptable, or easier, to love her. Lorraine would be unable to make the argument that Sister Corita was 'apart' from the Church, even if she wanted to. Sister Corita's spirituality speaks for itself. If she wasn't so engaged with the Catholic Church, why would she go so far as becoming a nun and dedicating her life and work to the Church? The fact that she was an important voice of dissent within the Church's internal dialogue speaks for her dedication. It's all there for anyone to see.

And that is why we admire her.
Katie Hanburger

The work is reminiscent of Saul Bass and, to a lesser extent, Paul Rand, however, the story behind the work is what I find so interesting. While we tend to focus those who shaped art and commerce, we forget the others whose focus was on shaping society. Her concern was not the market, but the soul; a worthy cause indeed.

I applaud her experimentation with typography, but was taken aback by the grandiose General Mills logo on For Eleanor. Such is the folly of reviewing such work out of context. Since it was noted that she frequently borrowed the slogans and ad-speak of the time, it would be interesting to explore the concept behind this poster.

As for the state of design in religion, I would have to agree that, generally speaking, it has become rather bland. Most of the design is so generalized; it isn't distinguishable from any other direct mail or marketing piece one would find in their mailbox. It would be quite interesting if someone took their passion for God, expressed it via their passion for design, and picked up where Sister Corita left off.

I would start by looking at the book cover design for The Death of Satan by Andrew Delblanco. The cover, designed by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in New York, is a pleasant mix of rough illustration and mechanical typography. It's not a poster from a church, but it certainly grabs my attention.
James D. Nesbitt

James, thanks for the link. My own interest in the meeting of Faith and design began in graduate school, when I was challenged to create my own content based on my interests and passions. My Catholic Faith was and continues to be the center of my identity. I was raised Roman Catholic, and even considered the priesthood before pursuing graphic design. I found it very difficult to find a place where my faith and design could merge successfully. Expressing something as mysterious and abstract as a relationship with God is hard enough, but without many designers engaging in this sort of work, I had no clear direction or model to follow. Unfortunately, I haven't created anything on the level of Sister Corita, but I did write my thesis on the theology of graphic design. It's still pretty rough, (I'm not the best writer), but I hope to expand on it and hopefully get it published in the future.

Sister Corita gives me hope that one day I will be able to find my own path of expression.
Jude Landry

Juicy, indeed. For those looking for more info on Ms. Corita: Mark Kingsley wrote a piece several years ago which is quite wonderful, and it can be found here.
debbie millman

Wow. So much verbal sparring and jockying for the rightious position on Sister Corita's work.
Why don't you all visit her rule # 8 ? (Corita Kent's Rules)
" Don't try to create and analyze at the same time. They're different processes. "
Nothing kills the enjoyment of art more than endless commentary of what the artist meant to say through someone elses eyes. It seems her messages are more direct and upfront. There is nothing wrong with that simple staement. Give it a rest.
Catherine Massaro

This issue of faith and design has weighed heavy on my heart for a long while now. I am a follower of Christ and believe me, there is a movement of people seeking to revitalize the connection of art and the church. Years ago the church was the cutting edge of music and art in society. Now it seems most (modern) churches are at least ten years behind what is current. It is ridiculous. We believe that God is the most creative force in the universe and that we are in direct connection with Him. Our art and design should be amazingly innovative and creative then. All of the design i do for my community at church I try to do with excellence. I will say that there is hope. As for design, check out Church Marketing Sucks. It may help others who are not familiar with the current church to get a feel with where we are going with this.

A W E S O M E ... really looking forward to the book. I think it was Mark Kingsley who suggested that Corita also suffered from severe bouts of depression which makes her significant body of work even more remarkable. Thanks Lorraine.
R. Raye

Regarding the Lost and Found exhibition referenced earlier, yes those prints are ON LOAN from the Corita Art Center. If you are interested in seeing a much broader and more complete range of her work, please visit us. Apparently visitors do not realize that the whos in the whoville of the Corita Art Center on the campus of Immaculate Heart Community DO EXIST, we are here preserving Corita's memory and legacy of works. Please visit! And if you want more source materials, we have those too including interviews with Corita herself discussing her own work in terms of religion and what religion actually came to mean to her.
Sasha Carrera

Outstanding. My first connection to the arts, crafts, and type was in Catholic School and made through Sister Joseph. She taught our 5th grade art class, and emphasized most of the foundations that I went on to learn about in college. She introduced us to 'the grid', and prepared me for the regimented structure I'd later encounter with some of my Swiss- and Bauhaus-trained instructors in college. Reading Sister Corita's story reminded me about all the design heroes out there, operating beneath the publicity, that demonstrate what design is and can be. Moreover, she was a maverick! A trailblazer. And a nun for god's sake!

This comment is really a question.

When I see this work, I'm often reminded of the work of Ben Shahn — a Jewish artist also known for his political and anti-war positions. This there anything interesting about the overlap of these two artists, one Catholic and one Jewish, one LA and one NY, both of whom incorporated typography into their work?

Ben Shahn seems to be another artist, inspired as as designer and typographer, who has fallen by the wayside of modern art.

William Drenttel

ben's art prowess has hardly been kicked to the curb. I saw his work at NY's Met a few years ago. Great artist who belongs more in Steinberg's camp than Sister hard Corita. OK, that was anti-intellectual. Drat! Argh.
felix sockwell

Ben Shahn called Corita a "joyous revolutionary" and she also respected his work, so there is definitely a connection though I don't know that anything has been written on it. The DISSENT! exhibition at the Fogg also features both of their work.
Sasha Carrera

Julie Ault's excellent book on Corita is long overdue, and a welcome tribute to an artist who was ahead of her time.

Sasha Carrera is right, a visit to the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles is a must. Notice on the walls the uncanny similarity between Corita's late 60s silkscreen prints and the computerized graphic distortion of type that we take for granted thirty years hence.

William Drenttel picks up on something real. Corita once said that she admired Shahn "for his line drawing, his use of words, and for making his own social and political stand in his pictures." In return, Ben Shahn referred to Corita as "the artist who joyously revolutionized type design"-- a phrase that stuck, at least in part, since Corita was referred to after that as a "joyous revolutionary." (Loste, 2000, p.119)

Corita's work engendered strong opposition from the Catholic hierarchy, as did her community of scholarly sisters, yet they were Corita's greatest allies, her anchor, as she increasingly took on quasi rock-star status among her students and fans during the late 60s.

Barbara Loste

A great review and such an incredibly inspiring story. I cannot wait for the book and to share the rules, as well as her work, with my own students this semester. It's interesting to think that Sister Colita was doing work, at least in appropriating commercial advertising themes, similar to Andy Warhol but just in different mediums. Wonder if they ever crossed paths?

I consider it a great blessing to have grown up with the work of Corita Kent and Ben Shahn in my childhood home. Both were heros to my father and I'm amazed at how strong they still are in my visual memory. I've always been most drawn to designers whose hands are strongly present in their work, designers who incarnate themselves and their strong beliefs in the gathering of marks and shapes on the page. Kent's "rules" are remarkable for their generality and comprehensiveness, simplicity and absurdity. They give a wonderful entrance into the life and vocation of this artist 'who did everything as well as she could.'
Jeremy Botts

Nice overview, Ms. Wild. In applying more hand-executed typography/illustration to my own design work lately, I could certainly learn a great deal from the exuberant and organic style of Sister Corita.

Also, a completely irrelevant aside:

These days, it seems high-end design firms spend tons of money on snazzy office decor and photographing their impressive interiors for glitzy publication features, press kits, etc. The atmosphere of these places (at least judging from the photos) generally tends to be uniformly trendy, spotless, and artificially hip -- seemingly lacking in soul, character or anything resembling evidence of real work.

But thankfully, I've now witnessed the true antithesis of those glossily contrived environments: that photo in the slideshow of the nuns working in the silkscreen shop (i.e., "Serigraphy workshop at Immaculate Heart College").

That is, without question, THE COOLEST studio interior shot I've ever seen.

They're working hard. They're making stuff. They're sporting kick-ass artwork in the background. And they're nuns in black habits.

Truly awesome. I love it.
Jon Resh

The biggest source of inspiration in Catholic schools was a priest.

I remember Father Geroge Wuellner. He was an artist and once or twice a month he would come into the classroom and draw stories on the board. And then his art would be erased.

After so many years. he must be close to eighty, I looked him up on the internet. Nothing of his art. Just chalk dust, like so many years ago...and then go outside and clean the erasers so that the process may not be copied but instead blow in the wind.

Ahhh wait... Check again

I would recognize that typography anywhere and everywhere.
Catholic by spirit not by rules

Jobs | June 21