Sister Mary Corita Kent: the Joyous Revolutionary

Okay, so I totally have a nun fetish. It started as a little girl with Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, and was cemented with Sally Field as Sister Bertrille aka The Flying Nun. By the time I got to school and encountered real life nuns, I was convinced they were made of magic. That they regularly sat around playing guitars and singing songs about talking flowers only made them even more fascinating to me. As I got older, I began to understand that life in the convent wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops, but that only made them more mysterious and alluring. Plus, let’s face it, there’s not much sexier than a good looking nun hidden under a habit. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Not that all the nuns from my childhood were nice, some of them could terrify Satan, but for the most they were dear old things who loved children and always had a smile and a pat on the head for everyone. When the sisters asked which of us wanted to be a nun when grew up, we all put our hands up.This was the time of Sister Smile, a Belgian known also as the Singing Nun, and Sister Janet Mead who was from Adelaide and had released a rock version of The Lord’s Prayer that we used to sing in school without any idea it had been a hit record, much less had won a Grammy. Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat…religious themes were everywhere and they were psychedelic and fun. Jesus was a hippy saviour who hung out with children and baby animals, and the nuns were his tambourine playing groupies. Even Andy Warhol thought they were cool enough to portray Ingrid Bergman as one in this 1983 print:

Ingrid Bergman, The Nun 1983

At least, that’s how I remember it. I may have romanticised it a bit, but my early memories of religious education are all happy ones and totally unlike the later tedium that led me to become the atheist I am today, albeit one who works part time in a museum devoted to the Sisters of Mercy here in Brisbane. But the era of the ‘modern nun’ that arose after Vatican Two and their struggle to adjust to new freedoms has never stopped being a story I enjoy revisiting – the human side of these strong and determined women (think Brides of Christ, but with a slightly less photogenic cast).

Anyway, this whole ramble is because the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is holding the first full scale survey of the work of Sister Mary Corita Kent, an American Catholic nun who was both a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (such a mouthful) and an artist and art educator. Though she ultimately left the order to focus on her art in 1968, she was probably the coolest nun to ever have existed.

Working almost exclusively with silkscreen, Kent was instrumental in establishing serigraphy as a fine art medium. Becoming one of the most popular graphic artists of the 1960s and 1970s, she was fascinated by words and wordplay. Heavily influenced by Andy Warhol and the pop art movement, her prints combined consumerist imagery with spiritual texts, quotes from literature, song lyrics, newspaper headlines, activist chants and pop culture sayings to become transformative works of love and positivity. In a career that spanned over 30 years, she influenced fellow creatives Charles & Ray Eames, Alfred Hitchcock and Saul Bass, and was even responsible for the most successfully issued stamp of the US Postal Service, the ‘Love Stamp’ in 1985.

Corita Kent died of cancer in 1986, aged just 67, but – and I know this sounds cheesy – her work is no less pertinent now as it was in her heyday. She encouraged her students to find the unusual in the everyday, and to seek out revelations wherever they may be found. Artist Ben Shahn referred to her as “the joyous revolutionary” and god knows there aren’t too many of those people around nowadays.


Sister Mary Corita

Art, words and nuns…what’s not to love?

For more information, check out the Andy Warhol Museum

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