Nun-sense

The dazzling art of Boston’s Sister Corita
By GREG COOK  |  October 23, 2007

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SPIRIT SISTER: Corita’s work went much deeper than the Dorchester gas tank.

Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita | By Julie Ault | Four Corners Books | 128 pages | $29.95
The question that arises when you consider the dazzling screenprints of the late Boston artist Sister Corita Kent is: how could an artist so good be so ignored? I suspect Kent, who’s best known in town for her cutesy rainbow stripes painted across the giant National Grid gas tank off Route 93 in Dorchester, is overlooked because she was a feminist who made boldly political and religious work. Three strikes and you’re out.

But two current events provide an occasion to reconsider her achievement. There’s Julie Ault’s book Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita, which was released earlier this year. And this Saturday, October 27, at the Savin Hill Yacht Club, there’ll be a discussion on Kent’s art and the history of the rainbow gas tank.

Ault provides a good overview of Kent’s life: born into an Irish Catholic family in 1918; became a nun with the progressive Immaculate Heart Sisters in Los Angeles at 18; taught three decades, including 20 years in the art department at LA’s Immaculate Heart College. And then there are her electric screenprints.

Wonderbread (1962) is three rows of lumpy dots in the brand’s signature colors — a bright poppy abstraction punning on the bread of the Mass, which is believed to transform into the sacred body of Christ. Kent’s 1950s prints had an Abstract Expressionist vibe, but by the early ’60s her compositions were dominated by text — poetry, rock lyrics, advertising jingles. She mixed handwritten words and mechanical type that she twisted, stretched, curled, diced, and flipped backwards and upside down, until it felt like flashing neon signs on a commercial strip.

Kent was energized by the hurly-burly of urban life. Her faith was streetwise, playful, with a love of beauty, and devoted to social justice. And she could take a joke. Her art reflected the ’60s upheavals of Vietnam, civil-rights struggles, and flower power, as well as the liberalization of the Catholic church. Mass was said in English instead of Latin. Nuns ditched their black-and-white habits for regular clothes. In 1967, Kent appeared on the cover of Newsweek as “The Nun: Going Modern.” Progressive Catholics were energized, but conservative leaders pushed back.

The bottom of Kent’s 1964 print The Juiciest Tomato of All is filled with a long quotation: “If we are provided with a sign that declares ‘Del Monte tomatoes are juiciest,’ it is not desecration to add: ‘Mary Mother is the juiciest tomato of them all.’ Perhaps this is what is meant when the slang term puts it, ‘She’s a peach,’ or ‘What a tomato!’ . . . . There is no irreligiousness in joy.” Cardinal James Francis McIntyre of Los Angeles banned the work.

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