The Nun's Story
By Ralph Caplan February 3, 2009
The Nun's Story
By Ralph Caplan February 3, 2009
The Nun's Story
By Ralph Caplan February 3, 2009

Some of the most interesting figures in graphic design made signal contributions that became so thoroughly absorbed in the rush of events that the people themselves are largely forgotten until we are reminded of them by Steve Heller or someone of his ilk (if Heller can be said to have an ilk). One such talent was the ebullient silkscreen artist Corita Kent, aka Sister Mary Corita, I.H.M., whose compelling use of words, letters, language and fragments of poetry generally introduced a disciplined freedom into graphic expression.

Sister Corita Kent (top) and a cover of the Irregular Bulletin

I was lucky enough to have her as a friend. When I was editing Industrial Design magazine in the 1960s, we began receiving a curious publication called the Irregular Bulletin. The name was appropriate, for it arrived frequently but irregularly, with no indication of when it would come or why it came to us at all. Published by Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, the Bulletin was a desktop publication before there was any such thing, photocopied from numerous sources and cut and pasted in whatever typography the original had been set in. Since the subject matter was mostly related to the college, I merely skimmed the first couple of issues, but sat up and took notice when I began seeing references to people like Bucky Fuller, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Charles Eames, Saul Bass and John Cage, and to spiritual leaders like the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip.

Once I found myself reading an article that seemed familiar, as if I had read it before. I read on in a mood of increasing perplexity, which was dissipated when I came to the end and realized that I had not only already read the piece, I had written it! My byline was accompanied by a small red heart pasted in by hand. When the next Irregular Bulletin arrived, I opened it and eagerly looked for other of my articles and found two of them, each ending with a hand-pasted red heart. By this time I had figured out that the hearts were the sister's way of thanking victims of their benign disregard for copyrights. Also by this time I had become a regular reader of the Irregular, which was written and edited with the kind of holy irreverence that, I soon discovered, fueled Corita's art and design, and most of the activities at what had to be the hippest college in Christendom, where Corita chaired the art department. I described this incongruous flamboyance to an art critic friend, who dismissed it wearily, saying, “Yes, I know about those Hollywood nuns. It's just Dada in the convent.” But it was not Dada exactly; although it had Dada's requisite humor and impatience with sacred cows, it offered no cows of its own to hang a movement on. Only Sister Corita's gift and wisdom.

When a New York art gallery announced a forthcoming show of Corita's work, with a reception for the artist herself, I promptly wrote, inviting her to come and talk to the staff at I.D. She replied in a handwriting so meticulously even that I imagined it was not handwriting at all, but the product of a calligraphic typewriter, probably made especially for her by Olivetti. “Talk about what?” she asked. “Zest” I replied in a hand that Olivetti wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole.

(from top) Hope serigraph, 1965, and For emergency use soft shoulder, 1966.

Like all visitors to New York, Corita and her companion nun, Sister Magdalene Mary, arrived with an agenda full of places and events. After a dizzying sweep of MoMA, the Cloisters and Washington Square, I took them to my favorite Mexican restaurant, El Parador, famous at the time for magnificent chili rellenos and margaritas, and for Claudio, the irresistibly charming owner-host. When we walked in, most of the diners did a double-take, or visibly suppressed one. Not Claudio, who welcomed us with a smile, seated us, and went off to fetch a margarita for me, and two sherry glasses, rimmed with salt, containing mini-margaritas for my two habit-wearing friends.

By the time Corita came to New York again, her work was well known and admired in the design community. (I think it was George Nelson who complained that the main thing wrong with Immaculate Heart College was that he couldn't send his son there.) She had written first, asking me to arrange a meeting with the poet E. E. Cummings, whose work she often used in her prints, so she could give him one she had just made for him. She apparently took it for granted that I knew Cummings, and I did not volunteer that the closest I had ever come to that honor was seeing him once through the window of a Greenwich Village barber shop. Serendipitously, however, I met a man who had just written a biography of Cummings, and agreed to broker the meeting. Corita met the poet and gave him the print, which I have never seen. (I haven't read the biography either.)

Emboldened by what, based on the Cummings affair, she took to be my ability to make things happen, Corita asked me a few days later to accompany the nuns to the Lower East Side to buy religious artifacts for the college museum. Having established wrongly that, as a writer, I knew all other writers, she assumed that, as a Jew, I must know the best sources of Judaica. I checked the Yellow Pages and learned that the premier supplier to synagogues was a shop on Essex Street. The sales staff there, not as blasé as Claudio, were visibly startled, but reasonably accepting as soon as they perceived that they were dealing not with dilettante browsers but serious buyers. The sisters, for their part, were relentless, demanding that objects be taken down from shelves, and even brought in from the window display, for their scrutiny. The shop owner became increasingly impatient, his exasperation peaking when Sister Magdalene Mary dared to ask to examine a scroll.

The juiciest tomato of all serigraph, 1964.

“You can't have that, lady. That's the Torah!”

“I know it is, and we haven't got one in our museum,” she explained.

“You're not supposed to have one. It's sacred.”

Corita jumped in. “Of course it's sacred. But Rabbi Heschel said…”

Now the shop owner jumped in, “You know Rabbi Heschel?”

“Yes, and he said it would be a great addition to the museum.”

He shrugged resignedly, and the Torah was added to their considerable array of purchases. The nuns were unruffled by the experience, not showing embarrassment even when, after giving the owner the shipping information, they explained that they would not be able to pay for the things they bought until they collected the proceeds from the student art show.

“Did the student art show take in that much?” he asked.

“We haven't held it yet.”

Over the years I visited Corita on campus several times, each coinciding with a festival. There seemed to always be a festival at Immaculate Heart, many incorporating ads and other vernacular expressions into the graphics. I remember a banner with the exuberantly streaming passage THAT MARY WAS SOME TOMATO! It may have been done by one of her students, but the metaphor also appears in one of Corita's serigraphs, which riffs on the popular Del Monte slogan by proclaiming, “Mary Mother is the juiciest tomato of them all.”

Despite her embrace of liberty in all things, Sister Corita did have rules, including:

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.
Consider everything an experiment.
Be self disciplined. This means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self disciplined is to follow in a better way.
Nothing is a mistake. There's no win and no fail. There's only make.
Don't try to create and analyze at the same time. They're different processes.
Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It's lighter than you think.

The list concluded with the promise that there would be new rules next week.

In 1967 Sister Mary Corita left the order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and moved to Boston, where she became just plain Corita Kent. Plain is a misnomer. As a civilian, she continued to create in the exciting way she always had, not making or seeing any distinction between her personal art and her commercial work. Her antiwar activism was a persistent source of trouble. A “Christmas of Peace” window she had done for IBM headquarters in New York was rejected as “too subversive.” In Boston her most conspicuous and most controversial work was the multi-striped surface of a 150-ft high gas tank on the highway. Supporters of the Vietnam war accused her of having smuggled a silhouette of Ho Chi Minh into the art!

Clearly not everyone appreciated Corita's art and today not everyone exults in her influence. A lay blogger named Karl Keating recently accused her, posthumously, of “dumbing down Catholicism.” You could plumb the depths of my knowledge of Catholic theology in one minute flat, but I think Mr. Keating has it wrong. Corita wasn't presenting an exegesis of Catholicism (or of love, peace, work, or any of her other themes) but expressing its joy. This she did with a body of work that enriched our understanding of art, while denying its limits.

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