In the liberal Pop Art world of 60s America, graphic artist Frances Elizabeth Kent quickly became a renowned figure within creative circles. She was a hugely talented designer, typographer and photographer and, uniquely, balanced her creative path with another calling – that of being a practicing nun within the Catholic church.
And yet Sister Mary Corita (as she became known after her inception into the Immaculate Heart community in Los Angeles at 18) remains an unsung heroine of modern graphic design – a reappraisal of her position as one of the US’s most strikingly original creatives is long overdue. Julie Ault, author of a new book of Corita’s work – Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita – looks set to help change this perception. Cited as a major influence on contemporary artists such as Mike Kelley and Wolfgang Tillmans, Corita’s work is also the subject of an exhibition which starts tonight – at Tillmans’ London gallery space, Between Bridges.
Counting Saul Bass, Buckminster Fuller and Charles and Ray Eames among her admirers, Corita made a name for herself as the champion of graphic design in the Immaculate Heart college’s art department during the early 60s. The liberal community and progressive educative environment suited her own outlook – while she often wore Marimekko dresses, which annoyed Cardinal McIntyre of the local archdiocese, she was also a staunch opponent of social injustice, racial inequality and the Vietnam war (her Stop the Bombing poster of 1967 is a superb example of her use of expressive typographic techniques).
A Mary’s Day procession in 1964 became a vehicle for her foray into supermarket culture and became a celebration of vernacular graphics. “We lift the common stuff – groceries and signs about groceries – out of the everyday and give it a place in our celebration,” she said. While the food theme invoked a celebration of abundance, the point of the procession was to also make people aware that much of the world’s population did not have enough to eat.
Significantly, her silkscreen prints often incorporated the archetypal brands of US consumerism alongside religious texts: she frequently used store signage, scripture, newspaper clippings, lyrics and writings from literary greats such Gertrude Stein, ee cummings and Albert Camus as the textual focal point of her work.
The IH college art department became legendary because of the illustrious figures that came to talk there – Charles and Ray Eames, John Cage, Alfred Hitchcock and Herbert Bayer all gave lectures on Corita’s insistence. She was a fervant believer in inspiring creativity in others, so much so that other nuns as well as her own art students often helped to produce installations and banners that featured vibrant type and huge blocks of colour. One of the IHC art department “rules” stated a particular mantra of hers, which still holds true today: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.”
Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita by Julie Ault is published by Four Corners, £15.95
Mary Does Laugh, 1964
Handle With Care, 1967