2.13 / Review

E is for Everyone: Celebrating Sister Corita

By Leigh Markopoulos March 6, 2011

I find myself having a similar response to all the Museum of Craft and Folk Art (MOCFA) exhibitions that I have seen recently. It’s a response that Kenneth Baker often expresses in reviews of thematic shows he enjoys, namely that the exhibition seems like a sketch or proposal for something larger. Undoubtedly it’s another way of saying, “I would have liked to see more"; this is usually the thought with which I exit MOCFA.

It is bold, even admirable, that this venue has ambitions beyond its size. But these ambitions have to contend with the limitations of MOCFA’s footprint when the museum attempts surveys of larger bodies of work or thematic shows. E is for Everyone tantalizes with too few examples of Sister Mary Corita’s extraordinary output. The exhibition presents a selection of key works from the late 1960s, perhaps her most fertile studio period, together with two exemplars from the early and late ’70s, respectively. Although they total less than twenty, the exuberantly color-rich, text-driven prints are arguably compelling enough to hold the space.

But the show doesn’t stop there. It also includes an homage to her “close personal and working relationship” with Charles and Ray Eames, a wall-painted mock up by local artist Jenifer Wofford of Corita’s rules for students and teachers of the Immaculate Heart College Art Department, plus two films, one of which is Aaron Rose’s 2009 documentary, Become a Microscope. Not least, the products of the museum’s CreateRelate collaboration with Creative Growth Art Center artists—a limited edition of painted boxes using Sister Corita’s techniques and images—are also on view. Their presence in the gift shop is complemented by Corita-related ephemera and literature. The whole adds up to a museum-standard extravaganza, or at least a proposal for how one should be done.

As the exhibition materials make clear, Corita’s story is remarkable. Born Frances Elizabeth Kent in 1918 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, she grew up in Los Angeles and at the age of eighteen, joined the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, adopting the name Sister Mary Corita. More versed in theory than practice, she finished her MA in Art History at University of Southern California in 1951, the same year she made her first silkscreen print. Developing her technique throughout that decade, Corita largely depicted devotional themes (Bible stories, psalms, etc.), and though none of the results are on view or often reproduced, by all accounts these prints were painterly, figurative, and somewhat saccharine. No surprises there, then.

One Great Loaf, 1965; serigraph; 17 x 23 in. Collection of Corita Art Center, Courtesy of the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, San Francisco.

Power Up (A), 1965; serigraph; 28.75 x 35 in. Collection of Corita Art Center, Courtesy of the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, San Francisco.

However, her technique and subject matter radically changed later that same decade as her growing skill and interest in the medium led her further afield in search of ideas. As the content of her work began to emerge from the cloisters and become rooted in urban reality, it gained criticality and relevance through an increasing alignment with the sociopolitical concerns of the era. For some time a thorn in the side of conservative Catholics, Sister Corita’s mild critiques escalated into activist slogans that (gently) exposed the wrongs of society. In works such as Power Up (A) and One Great Loaf (both from 1965), poverty, racism, war, and particularly the Vietnam conflict are addressed. Not even the Catholic Church’s internal struggles are spared. Blurring the boundaries between art and design, aesthetics and politics, her works far decentralized authority, returning it to the grasp of the individual or the community and to more humane values.

Throughout the ’60s, the introduction of text in Corita’s work gradually eased out figurative subject matter, and word size and quantity escalated in the prints until the word eventually became the image. In some prints the words burst somewhere beyond the paper’s edge, in others they float on pools of color, interlock, or meet in layered psychedelic palimpsests. The catchy slogans and typography evince a debt to Los Angeles’ media culture, but Sister Corita drew on a much wider array of cultural sources, including ad slogans, signage, poetry, and song lyrics. Clearly a child of the ’60s, Corita viewed wide distribution as a populist and also Christian principle that determined her choice of printmaking as the ultimate democratic form. Her large unnumbered editions were inexpensively priced and complemented by greeting cards, publications, posters, murals, and billboards. Although motivated by art, Corita did not necessarily align herself with any particular aesthetic movement. And while her work has been claimed by both Pop and feminist art trajectories, I’m not sure that it requires categorization.

The exhibition includes two pieces from the ’70s. Sadly, the works from this period lack the criticality and formal experimentation that characterized Corita’s earlier efforts, evoking instead Picasso’s cheesier later prints (think Hands with flowers [1958]). According to Julie Ault’s excellent essay in Come Alive: The Spirited Art of Sister Corita (London: Four Corners Books, 2007), these later works disappoint with their “platitudes and splashes of color.” Perhaps the activist had burned out and the struggle was over. Certainly it must have been an effort to undertake her own radical move and leave the order in 1968 to devote herself more explicitly to her art. After relocating to Boston, where she remained until her death in 1986, Corita worked most often on large-scale commissioned projects for organizations like Boston Share, the International Walk for Hunger, and Amnesty International. Her work lives on and, in keeping with history’s cyclical rhythms, it seems particularly relevant once more in today’s uneasy, war-torn, economically depressed world.

There are many wonderfully extraordinary facets to Corita’s life and work. As the chair of Immaculate Heart College’s art department, she revolutionized the instruction of art and type design. Cultural luminaries such as John Cage, Alfred Hitchcock, Buckminster Fuller, and Charles and Ray Eames co-taught her classes. Their collaborations as well as her popular community events and temporary exhibitions connected her to large audiences and made her a celebrity in her own right. Happily, the show highlights quite a few aspects of Corita’s legacy, despite being unable to fully explore them. After all, a largely self-taught activist art-making nun is a more or less unique entity in the (art) world, and as this exhibition’s title reminds us, should be celebrated as such.


E is for Everyone: Celebrating Sister Corita is on view at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, in San Francisco, through June 5, 2011.

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