Seeds of Renewal, the Language of Pop
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
Beginning Sept. 3, Marymount California University, in collaboration with the Corita Art Center and fINdings Art Center, will present Be the Change: The Corita Experience, an exhibition at the Klaus Center in San Pedro that surveys the work of artist, activist and educator Sister Corita Kent.
More than 60 pieces of Sister Corita’s vibrant pop art serigraphs will be featured in the show, reflecting her passion for tearing down the walls that separate people, confronting injustice and promoting peace.
Sister Corita’s work has been traveling around the world since about 2011, but “now is the time” for its message to really transmit, said Annette Ciketic, director of fINDings.
I wanted a firsthand understanding of Sister Corita from those who knew her and had a relationship with her. I have found that many lionized heroes of the left, after many decades, tend to get diced, sliced, repackaged and then mass-distributed in a form palatable enough that even old, ideological foes can stomach and regurgitated at their convenience. That is, if they weren’t forgotten. I suspected that was part of the reason Sister Corita’s work has been touring around the world for the past few years.
Annette is one of several San Pedro alumni of Immaculate Heart College, whose class graduated during the 1960s. The college, which operated in the Hollywood Hills, closed in 1981. Through Annette, I met her fellow alum and Sister Corita student, Laurine DiRocco. Laurine was named educator and artist of the year by the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce women’s conference this year.
Both Laurine and Annette are dedicated to art and teaching other teachers using Sister Corita’s methods. Neither are gallery artists.
These teaching methods eliminate the barrier between student and teacher and posits that a learning environment conducive to excellence can be achieved through diligence, hard work and engagement between students and teachers.
Annette recalled Sister Corita telling her students, “I don’t want you to copy me. I want you to become the best you are.”
“There was a famous [often repeated Balinese] quote in our art department, ‘We have no art. We do everything as well as we can,’” Annette explained.
Annette recalled how Sister Corita and her class created their own rules.
“We sat in class one day; it was in a space about like this,” Laurine said, carving an invisible three-dimensional space with her finger that included Annette’s office to the edge of the sidewalk outside. Annette then read off from a list of Sister Corita’s general rules for teaching, which Annette and Laurine abide by to this day:
• Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.
• General duties of a student: pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.
• General duties of a teacher: pull everything out of your students.
• Consider everything, and then experiment.
• Be self-disciplined. This means finding someone wise or smart and following them. Be disciplined and follow in a good way. Self-discipline is to follow in a better way.
• Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win or lose, there’s only make.
• The only rule is work.
• Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They are two different processes.
• Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It is lighter than you think. There’s always a sense of celebration.
• We’re breaking all of the rules, even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.
Annette read the “Helpful Hints” addendum to the rules. They included: “Always be around, come and go to everything; always go to classes; read anything you can get your hands on and look at movies carefully and often; save everything—it might come in handy later; there should be new rules next week.”
I found the first rule the most intriguing. It was also the one I remembered the most clearly. Annette’s and Laurine’s description of their time at Immaculate Heart College made the idea of “place” seem like something more than a physical location. It was as if the word “place” was really a description of a relationship.
“We were always a school without walls,” Annette explained. “Every Friday in the art department, we’d go somewhere as a group. It might be Buckminster Fuller’s house, Charles Hughes’ house, Mark C. Bloome’s place [and] other famous people’s homes… the park, the beach…”
“She’s always giving us ways to see bigger, deeper, more…” Laurine added.
Laurine recalled Sister Corita took her class to a car and tire shop in Beverly Hills owned by the wealthy entrepreneur Mark C. Bloome. It took up a whole city block. Sister Corita gave each of the students 35mm slides with the film cut out, called “findings” to frame the details of what they saw in ways they never saw before.
“When you’re looking through something like that [the finding]…rather than getting this whole room, I can get a portion of this whole room,” said Laurine, attempting to explain the shift in perspective that comes from focusing your attention on a particular detail of an object.
“We get out of our cars with our findings, people are getting gas, people are getting tires and we’re doing this,” said Laurine as she joined her left thumb and index finger with her right to form the square of a finding.
“[Later] I realized I learned to see…that without the card… I would be driving along and I would be talking and then I would stop and say, ‘Look at that,’” Laurine said, describing the experience of seeing something new in a scene she had numerous times before from a different perspective.
Finding Sister Corita
Like the environment out of which Sister Corita matured as an artist and scholar, in which she helped foster her students during the late 1950s and ‘60s, her life’s work was a world without walls. Her medium of choice was serigraphy (silkscreen), a process that lends itself to mass production with the potential of reaching more people and traveling further than one-off fine art meant for gallery spaces.
Her oeuvre was pop art. Andy Warhol’s 1962 iconic exhibition of Campbell’s soup cans was lightening in a bottle to Sister Corita. It opened up the possibility of inserting layers of meaning to the viewer, whose subconscious is already bombarded with advertising imagery.
Sister Corita’s work was very much tuned in to the politics, culture and societal moment of the 1960s. Whether it was Civil Rights or the anti-war movement, she engaged it the best way she knew how: first through her teaching. When she left the order, she kept up that engagement through her art.
My conversation with Annette and Laurine reminded me of conversations I have had with my greatest teachers in my academic life—teachers I’ve called close friends and mentors. This was the kind of relationship Annette and Laurine had with Sister Corita. I realize that I couldn’t fully appreciate Sister Corita’s legacy without understanding to some degree the environment in which she matured intellectually and professionally at Immaculate Heart.
Annette and Laurine and I did not have enough time to talk about this part of Immaculate Heart of Mary and Sister Corita’s legacy, but they recommended that I read the first-person account of Dr. Anita Caspary, who served as the order’s mother superior during this turbulent transitional period of the church.
Sister Corita joined the order in 1936, earning advanced degrees in art and art history. What’s really important about Sister Corita’s biography is that she was a teacher inside the order during the period of transformation—almost in anticipation of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI’s call for renewal of the church and the opening of Vatican Council II.
One of the key things the Vatican Council II called for was experimentation on adapting religious life within the order and outside of it. This was to engage modernity while doing all that they were called to do as Christians.
That also meant addressing injustice, inequality, and suffering even as they shared their faith. This change meant changes in prayer life, favoring the vernacular as opposed to Latin to communicate with the faithful, connecting authority to service and movement away from the kind of clericalism that can emerge in a 2,000-year-old institution.
I can’t say that Sister Corita intentionally worked to be an activist. She was the tip of a sword that pricked all things unjust. The first conflict came from her religious art, which began to capture attention by the late 1950s, but was considered sacrilegious. Another seminal event that drew Sister Corita into conflict was the attention garnered by the 1964 Mary’s Day celebration.
The order organized the annual event that included a day of prayer and procession dedicated to Mary, as mother of God. The event was a fairly dour and low-key affair that would end with an evening procession winding up the college hill on the campus, and a crown of flowers would be placed on the statue of Mary by a specially chosen student.
That year, Sister Corita was asked by the college president to create a new Mary’s Day festivity that celebrated the real woman Mary of Nazareth, as opposed to the solemn event it used to be. This break from tradition caused conflict with the traditionalist male hierarchy of the church and the order.
This very public dispute led to the removal of all Immaculate Heart sisters teaching in Los Angeles diocesan schools, who were given an ultimatum: either conform to the standards of traditional religious life, or seek dispensation from vows. Annette noted that about 90 percent of the sisters that held advanced degrees in the order chose to leave their vows and reorganize as a nonprofit lay organization, the Immaculate Heart Community.
In many respects, the forces with which the sisters of Immaculate Heart of Mary had to contend were similar to the forces of Jim Crow, American exceptionalism and imperialism, and the patriarchy that allowed celibate priests to dictate when and where nuns should pray and the kinds of habits they should wear.
The order, Immaculate Heart of Mary, ceased being a canonized order. As a lay community, it thrives and arguably it better fulfills the order’s desire to achieve what the Vatican Council II called them to do as part of the renewal of the church: comfort the afflicted, heal the sick, and extend the hand of friendship to all who need it.
I asked Annette why we are now remembering Sister Corita Kent. But I know the answer: her work has never stopped being relevant.