Sister Corita Kent: Uncredited Pop Art Pioneer

Perhaps fittingly for International Women’s Day, during a byzantine web search rabbit hole last night, I stumbled upon an image of an extravagantly-wimpled Catholic nun pulling silkscreens.

And that’s how I found myself introduced to and awestruck by the work of Sister Corita Kent.

That photo accompanied a list titled Some Rules for Students and Teachers. The notion of creative ‘rules’ makes little sense, but these feel oddly insightful. Created during 1967 and infused with the ethos of those times, they encourage embracing uncertainty, emphasize the work ethic, and encourage a mindset of being fully awake to everything.

The list came from an art course Sister Corita taught at the College of the Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles, Ultimately, they became the mantra for her art department.

But Sister Corita’s influence extended far beyond the classroom. She credited a visit to an Andy Warhol exhibit in 1962 for sparking her style of colorful, hand lettered words and phrases that mixed the religious and the secular, scripture and tag lines, corporate logos with social issues like poverty and hunger. Prolific and unabashedly socially conscious, her body of 800 serigraphs and small watercolors include covers for The Saturday Evening Post and Newsweek. True to the tenor of the times, her work bridges the gap between commercial and fine art, appearing on bumper stickers, t-shirts, even a massive natural gas tank outside of Boston. One particularly famous piece — “So far the crocuses have always come up” — even appeared on national billboards for Physicians for Social Responsibility. Her work still grace nearly 40 museums worldwide.

Today, art historians and the occasional retrospective exhibit have begun reassessing Sister Corita’s role as an influential player who propelled the Pop Art Movement by embodying it. She didn’t just comment with her art; she participated with it. She engaged. And she brought others along with her.

But despite all this, her place in art history almost disappeared. Neither male nor the typical expectation of an artist, her impact fell to the wayside, occasionally dismissed as novelty. Her vocation as a Roman Catholic nun only made her reputation doubly hamstrung by male domination. After 32 years of work and service, her run-ins with church hierarchy eventually led her to leave the order in 1968.

Happily, her art and faith endured the transition from Los Angeles to Boston, where she continued her work and activism, churning out messages of optimism, hope, and peace.

Today, if she’s remembered, it’s for these “Love” postage stamps from 1985:

A close up of a piece of paper

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The United States Postal Service eventually sold over 700 million copies of them. It was a high point for Sister Corita’s recognition as an artist.

Unfortunately, she was taken by cancer not a year later. She was only 67.

As we start a new work week fresh off the inspiration of International Women’s Day, it’s worth bearing in mind at least three of Sister’s rules:

  • RULE #4: Consider everything an experiment.
  • RULE #6: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.
  • RULE #7: The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something.

Thank you, Sister. Happy Monday.