Corita Kent: a nun turned full-time pop artist

Corita Kent (1918–1986) was a nun for over three decades, who created bold and colourful silkscreen prints that championed social justice causes. She’s known loosely as the ‘pop-art nun,’ producing work at the same time as Andy Warhol and using his art as inspiration.

This woman was an incredibly disruptive force for her time, and her achievements are ones to be remembered – despite her not getting anywhere near as much recognition as Warhol.

Early life

Corita was born Frances Elizabeth Kent to a large Catholic family. Kent recalled always being drawn to creative design and sketching throughout her childhood. She attended a Catholic Girls High School run by nuns of the Immaculate Heart, where some of the younger nuns saw huge potential in Corita’s artistic abilities.

At 18 she joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, where she took the name Sister Mary Corita, and became a student at the Immaculate Heart College where she studied for a bachelors degree and also trained as an art teacher. After graduating, she spent a few years teaching before returning to complete a master’s degree at the University of Southern California in 1951. It was during her time at USC that she discovered silk-screen printing, the art medium that eventually resulted in her artistic breakthroughs.

Her artistic evolution

A year after the completion of her masters, she won first prize in the LA County print competition and the California State Fair for her piece The Lord Is With Thee. That same year she returned to Immaculate Heart as a full-time art teacher – she was becoming an artist to watch out for, that much was certain! She quotes E.E. Cummings as one of her earliest and strongest influences, quoting him more than a dozen times in her work.

Over time her work became less religious, and more political and brash, to a point where it was entirely typographic text. She created art where the Virgin Mary was depicted in a manner that hadn’t been seen before; pieces such as Mary Does Laugh showed her shopping at the local supermarket, and the Juiciest Tomato of All showed Mary as a giant tomato. Using everyday consumer items in her art allowed her to bring words and thoughts about her religion to a familiar product, allowing her to bridge a gap between what was thought of as ‘holy’ and the everyday world.

“Like a priest, a shaman, a magician, she could pass her hands over the commonest of the everyday, the superficial, the oh-so-ordinary, and make it a vehicle of the luminous, the only, and the hope-filled.” Harvey Cox, a friend of Corita’s.

Her teaching methods also reflected her changing viewpoints and radical opinions. Rock music was usually played on the stereo, films were screened simultaneously, and her students were taken to supermarkets for observation sketching and blindfold painting.

She also took over the IHC’s annual Mary’s Day celebration, which had been the same every year; the women wore white gowns and walked to mass. But once she took charge, the celebration transformed into something else entirely. Summer dresses were worn, flowers were held, and tambourines and guitars were happily played.

Art was an important tool in modernising the Church and presenting and communicating Christian messages in new ways – her use of English texts in her work made an impact on the Vatican II’s efforts to normalise conducting Mass in English, for example.

Leaving the church

Complaints against her controversial art and teaching were beginning to build by the 1960s – the Church saw her work as potentially blasphemous and frivolous. The archbishop ended up writing to the Mother General of the convent, complaining about Kent’s methods and “Hereby request again that the activities of Sister Corita be confined to her classroom.”

By 1968, Corita decided to leave the Immaculate Heart Order for good; and only a year later, the entire order left the official control of the Catholic Church, criticising the sisters’ teaching methods.

Once she was free of the political constraints of the Catholic Church, her art became increasingly political and expressive of her opinions. She was commissioned by the Physicians for Social Responsibility to create what she called ‘we can create life without war’ billboards, and created art that commented on race relations and other heavily political topics. Her print love your brother (1969) included photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. overlaid with her handwritten words ‘The king is dead. Love your brother.’

"I admire people who march. I admire people who go to jail. I don't have the guts to do that. So I do what I can.”

Her legacy

By the 1960s, she’d shown work at 230 exhibitions across the USA, and in 1980 the deCordova Museum in Massachusetts staged the first retrospective of her work. During her life and even in the 20 years following her death, her work wasn’t able to break it into the mainstream world. Being a female artist and a nun didn’t help her back then – she didn’t fit the ‘normal aesthetic’ of a Pop Artist.

At the time of her death in 1986 she’d created around 800 serigraph editions, thousands of watercolors, and innumerable public and private commissions.

Her work is in several museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, and an archive is dedicated to her at the Immaculate Heart Community Headquarters.