Pop with a Purpose: New Corita Kent Exhibit explores the art of activism

(Courtesy of The Duquesne Duke) Corita Kent, E eye love, 1968, courtesy of Corita Art Center, Los Angeles.
(Courtesy of The Duquesne Duke) Corita Kent, E eye love, 1968, courtesy of Corita Art Center, Los Angeles.
(Courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum) Corita Kent, E eye love, 1968, courtesy of Corita Art Center, Los Angeles.

By: Rebekah Devorak | For The Duquesne Duke

Think of the last name Kent: who is the first person that comes to mind? Typically it’s the famous superhero Clark, who spent his time reporting when he wasn’t out saving the planet. Most don’t think of the famous artist Corita, who spent her time changing the world not through fighting crime, but through art.

Well, now is the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in her artwork and legacy, much like you would in the comics of Superman. Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent is a new art exhibition that will be appearing at The Andy Warhol Museum, opening on Jan. 31.

The exhibition, which runs through April 19, is the first of its kind, spotlighting over 200 pieces of artwork from the entire span of Sister Mary Corita Kent’s career.

“We are incredibly excited for the show to be in Pittsburgh,” Ian Berry, the Dayton director of the Tang Museum and co-curator of the exhibit, said. “We can’t wait to see it alongside Warhol.”

The exhibition was organized by Berry and Michael Duncan, an independent curator, in conjunction with the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles.

According to the exhibition’s website, Someday is Now will feature some of Kent’s most famous pieces from her pop art period in the 1960’s, as well as early abstractions and lyrical works from the 1970’s and 1980’s. The collection even includes rarer ephemera, like photographs that Kent used strictly for educational purposes.

The process of creating the exhibition required over two years of planning, thinking, talking and traveling. Berry and Duncan, who met while working on a previous project, both loved Kent and knew that they wanted to curate an exhibition featuring her artwork.

“We both share an interest in bringing under-known artists like Corita to the public,” Berry said. “Artists love Corita, and everyone immediately embraces her. We are hoping this show creates that same feeling for the public.”

Berry and Duncan visited the Corita Art Center, a gallery that is solely dedicated to promoting Kent’s work. The Center was more than happy to collaborate on the exhibition, Berry said, and they began picking pieces for the collection. Given the museum’s expansive archives, assembling the vast majority of the artwork was not a difficult task.

(Courtsey of The Andy Warhol Museum) Corita Kent, who came out of the water, 1966, Collection of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College.
(Courtsey of The Andy Warhol Museum) Corita Kent, who came out of the water, 1966, Collection of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College.

However, some of the rarer pieces were more elusive. For example, Kent is famous for her alphabets, where she designed a specific print for each letter pertaining to a theme.

“There are two alphabets in the exhibit, and one of them is the ‘Circus Alphabet,’” Berry said. “The Corita Art Center didn’t have all of the letters, so we had to hunt in private collections.”

The individuality of Kent’s work goes far beyond her style, however. According to Berry, one of the most intriguing aspects of her artwork is the way that it sparks union and sharing among those who see it.

“Everywhere we go with the show, it always elicits people’s stories,” Berry said. “Whether they are stories about Catholic school, the 1960’s, knowing Corita or seeing her prints hung up in grandma’s house, Corita’s artwork is the kind of thing that people want to talk about. I think that’s a nice way of revealing Corita’s specialness; it’s artwork that pulls you in, not pushes you away.”

Tresa Varner, Curator of Education and Interpretation at The Andy Warhol Museum agrees.

“Her work is so vibrant and aesthetically beautiful,” Varner said. “The prints draw you in. But I believe it’s the message that will, in the end, turn people into Corita devotees. Her message is critical but also filled with hope and answers. She found these answers in the everyday: by being present, reading books, listening to music, studying religious texts and listening.”

In addition to the “Circus Alphabet,” Someday is Now will feature some of Kent’s most popular prints including “Who Came Out of the Water”, “The Lord is with Thee”, “Beatitudes” and “Power Up”, which Berry says is one of his favorites.

“It’s a magnificent print,” Berry said. “It adds a wonderful charge in all areas of our lives: It says stand up for yourself, speak your truth, power up your courage. It could be a flag for a country’s independence or your own personal story.”

Jessica Beck, the Assistant Curator at The Andy Warhol Museum, says that the guests should also be excited about Kent’s “Beatitude.”

“I think the banner from the 1964 World’s Fair will be wonderful for visitors to see,” Beck said. “It’s only been shown at MOCA Cleveland and now at The Andy Warhol Museum. It’s a great crossover with Warhol, since he too exhibited work at the World’s Fair with his mural ‘Thirteen Most Wanted Men.’”

Berry also agrees that the artwork of Kent and Warhol complement each other nicely.

“They are the perfect pairing, both hardworking Catholic print makers,” Berry said.

As detailed by the Corita Art Center’s website, Kent was born in 1918 in Fort Dodge, Illinois, but grew up in Los Angeles. She joined the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1936, taking the name Sister Mary Corita. Most, though, simply referred to her as Corita. From 1947 to 1968, Kent taught in the Immaculate Heart College’s art department.

While there, Kent developed her graphic Pop art style, for which she is probably most renowned. These prints combined popular culture, such as street signs, movies, advertisements and song lyrics, with some of the most controversial social and political issues of her time. Kent, who mainly used silkscreen to create her art, addressed and questioned topics like racism, war and poverty with such an open reality that, according to the exhibition’s website, “her images remain iconic symbols … of that turbulent time and continue to influence many artists today.”

Kent also drew upon her deep roots in Catholicism when creating her prints, often working in Biblical verses or events with her references to popular culture. For example, Kent’s 1967 print “Jesus Never Fails” features those exact words alongside song lyrics from The Beatles.

In addition to Someday is Now, The Andy Warhol Museum created three corresponding events that delve deeper into Kent’s work.

The first is the Youth Art Opening, which will be shown on Friday, Feb. 13, at 10 p.m. This mini-exhibition will showcase work from teens across the Pittsburgh area who produced a series of prints in response to Someday is Now. Guests will also be able to print the young artists’ designs to take home and enjoy.

“This exhibition was the perfect opportunity for a youth program since Corita was a born educator,” Nicole Dezelon, Associate Curator of Education at The Andy Warhol Museum, said. “Kent’s work speaks to activism and social justice issues, and the youth that our educators are working with have expressed a great interest in current social justice and art activism as evidenced in their prints.”

“Corita Kent in Her Contexts: Art, Craft, Politics and Society” is the next promotional event. This lecture, which features Georgetown University theology and fine arts professor Ori Soltes, is scheduled for Saturday, March 7, at 2 p.m. in the Warhol Theater. This lecture explores the connection between Kent’s artwork, the environments from which they were derived and her ultimate self-expression.

The final event is another lecture that will take place on Saturday, March 21, at 2 p.m. in the Warhol Theater. “In Discussion: Art & Social Change: Movement-Makers in the Arts with Deanna Cummings, Jasiri X and Dr. Joyce Bell” highlights social justice and its effect on the arts.

Someday is Now also features an education space at the center of the exhibition, where guests of all ages can work through assignments that Kent gave to her own students. According to Varner, these projects come directly from Kent’s book Learning by Heart, which she collaborated on with one of her former students, Jan Steward. Guests are encouraged to continue working on these assignments at home, where they are listed on the exhibition’s website. Once they create a piece of art using Kent’s guidelines, they can share it with the museum on Twitter by using the hashtag #CoritaKent.

All of the events are free with museum admission. Admission is free for Members of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, $20 for adults and $10 for children or students with a valid ID. The Andy Warhol Museum is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays.