Get with the Action: Corita Kent, Ditchling Museum, till 14 October
Who would have thought you could travel to the heart of Sussex, along lanes frothing with cow parsley, to be confronted by a blast of Californian counter-culture straight from the 60s?
But this is what happens when you walk into the Corita Kent exhibition at the Ditchling Museum of Arts and Crafts – and it’s all the more surprising when you learn that Corita Kent was a nun, and her alma mater (and later employer), Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, a hotbed of radical creativity.
The exhibition charts her artistic journey very clearly. The earliest works, figurative pieces drawing directly on the Bible or other religious texts, are striking and accomplished, but not iconoclastic.
Then the educator and the activist within her begin to take over, harnessing the power of words both for their content and their appearance. In her silk-screen prints, she blows them up, sends them off at an angle, cuts them short, draws you in with bold typography and colour, till you linger to read what is literally the subtext, in which she expands on her theme in a characteristically freestyle script.
As her critique of US consumerism and of its exploits in Vietnam become more overt, she adds photomontage to her range of techniques: press images and arresting headlines are saturated with red and green, bringing home the horror of war and the culpability of a great power using weaker states as pawns.
Kent’s tenure as chair of the art department at Immaculate Heart College saw an explosion of creativity, with the establishment of a silk-screening studio at its heart. There is something surreal in the photos of the studio, where wimpled nuns circulate, overseeing students’ work and deftly navigating round printing frames and the prints laid out on the floor or festooned on drying lines
Students adored Kent’s stimulating and offbeat approach, and the challenges she set them. There is mesmerising footage of Kent briefing her students for various exercises: for example, go to a strip mall car dealership and look – really look – at all there is to see there. They have three hours for this exercise, she tells them, but she assures them that there are in fact many more hours’ worth of looking to be had. They would come back bearing fragments of startling typography, screaming colour contrasts, enigmatic symbols and phrases.
And what self-respecting student could fail to be inspired by Kent’s ten rules, including ‘Consider everything an experiment’ and ‘. . . Enjoy yourself; it’s lighter than you think’, but rounded off with the casual warning ‘there should be new rules next week.’
Kent transformed the College’s annual Mary Day procession into a carnival of flowers, colours and celebration designed to bring the community together and enfold secular in its embrace.
You will not be surprised to hear that none of this escaped the attention of the bishops, who were not at all happy with what they saw. At the very least, Sister Corita was occupying territory that the Roman Catholic church had no business to be in; at worst, her practice of invoking Christ’s message in the political arena was frankly blasphemous. Alongside the dramatic images, there are some sober A4 business letters on display: correspondence between the bishops and the principals of the college. Every harrumphing letter is refuted with a quiet but resolute defence of Kent’s creativity, and her talents for teaching and engaging the community.
In the end, though, this tension led her to renounce her vows in 1968, despite the continuing strength of her faith. She devoted the rest of her life to art, including designing the hugely successful ‘Love’ stamp for the US postal service.
So why had I never heard of her? Sometimes you have to wonder if there is a conspiracy …