Corita Kent was an artist, an educator, and an activist who used her artwork to address issues of social injustice and the anti-war movement. As a Catholic nun, Corita drew on her faith, her distinct design sensibility, and diverse aesthetic influences to create her vibrant, text-based serigraphs.
Kent came into her artistic identity in the 1960s amid the protests over the Vietnam War and the fight for civil rights. Responding to the changes prompted by Vatican II, her religious community, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, had adopted increasingly progressive positions, and found colleagues within the church, such as Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who were taking up vocal stances against the draft, hunger, and pervasive problems of racial and economic division.
The text and imagery in her work are combinations of product packaging, newspaper and other printed media, local signage, and universal symbols, often photographed and traced and then further distorted or reversed. The looping cursive is Kent’s own handwriting and is often seen in the compositions as transcriptions of bible verses, poetry, and popular song lyrics. Aware of creative popular culture, as well as political and religious concerns, she was also very likely influenced by the early exhibitions of Pop Art at Ferus and Dwan galleries in Los Angeles early in the decade.
A beloved and energetic faculty member in the art department at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, Kent encouraged her students to rigorously engage with the world, creating assignments that visually and civically challenged their experience of the city. She believed in the power of the visual to create awareness around the critical issues of her time. While Kent was talented in a variety of mediums, she adopted print making for its ease in distribution and proliferation.
She was able both to sell pieces of the print editions affordably to her patrons and to share them widely with mentors and friends across the country. The works on view in this exhibition came from the collection of prints that were in her possession at the time of her death, which she bequeathed to her close friend, the Sulpician priest Rev. Robert Giguere.
Kent left the order and entered secular life as a nationally renowned artist in 1968, moving from California to the East Coast. She produced a number of public art commissions, from billboards to rainbow painted gas tanks, and her work appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 1985. Corita died in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1986 after a battle with cancer.
This selection of boldly colored serigraphs is on loan from U.S. Province of the Society of St. Sulpice. We Care is presented along with the Goucher Library Special Collections & Archives’ exhibition of the same title, which documents the Goucher community’s participation in activism and protests in the region throughout the college’s history. More information on Father Berrigan (known locally as a member of the Catonsville Nine) can be found in the fourth-floor exhibition, along with many other instances of social action and demonstration.
Thomas Lewis (1940-2008) was an artist and anti-war activist who spent much of his young adult life in Baltimore in the 1960s. For Lewis, art and activism were constantly entwined; his most notable political action was as a member of the Catonsville Nine, a group which on May 17, 1968, in protest of the Vietnam War, entered the Selective Services office in Catonsville, Maryland, and stole and ceremoniously burned draft records in the parking lot. More information about the Catonsville Nine is available in a related exhibition hosted by Goucher Special Collections & Archives.
Following the action, Lewis created his portfolio of etchings, The Trial and Prison (1969), which consists of 10 prints that reflect on the artist’s participation in the historic Catonsville protest and his subsequent time imprisoned for the action. For the cover of the portfolio, Lewis borrows an original print by Corita Kent, one in a series of works she created amplifying the anti-war movement. Lewis thanks Kent for the cover of the portfolio in a series of introductory acknowledgements, writing, “THANK YOU – – CORITA FOR THE COVER”.
Kent’s screenprint, phil and dan, portrays the two most famous members of the Catonsville Nine, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, replicating a widely circulated image of the
two priests leaning over flaming trash bins of draft records with apparent reverence. At the bottom of her image, Kent quotes Tom Lewis as he evokes Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” (1849): “to me … prison is a very creative way to say yes to life and no to war.”
Lewis’s path entwines with Kent’s, at least in part, due to their mutual relationship with the well-known catholic priest, activist, and poet Daniel Berrigan. The three artists were connected on multiple creative projects related to the Catonsville action. In addition to phil and dan, Kent would go on to design the trade cover of Berrigan’s play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, while Lewis and Berrigan collaborated on an illustrated book of poetry, The Trial Poems.
Lewis’ print Draft records are for burning is the first image in The Trial and Prison portfolio (following the cover, Kent’s phil and dan). The image is composed of high-contrast phototransfers of protesters, printed in black and fluorescent orange. Much of the detail in the original photographs eroded, leaving a composition reminiscent of fiery embers in both color and texture.