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Documentary Draws the Line on Sister Corita : Television: A new film celebrates the life and artistry of a woman who was able to bridge the gulf between popular and fine art.

TIMES ARTS EDITOR

She designed a postage stamp and a giant industrial gas tank that now gleams like a rainbow in the dark Bostonian winters. She provoked and inspired a generation of students at Immaculate Heart College. Her boldly colored and message-carrying silk-screen prints caught the spirit of the ‘60s and beyond. Five years after her death, Corita Kent’s work, original, ebullient and accessible, continues to bridge the gulf between popular art and fine art.

Now she is the subject of a revealing documentary, “Primary Colors: The Story of Corita,” which airs tonight at 10 on KCET Channel 28. It was made by Jeffrey Hayden and is narrated by his wife, Eva-Marie Saint, who speaks Corita’s own words.

Hayden, a veteran television director of everything from “Philco Playhouse” to the current “In the Heat of the Night,” had never made a documentary before. But he and his wife had been collecting Corita prints since the late 1950s and finally had a chance to meet her.

“I realized I’d never shaken hands with a nun before,” Hayden said at lunch last week. “No, but you’d slept with a Saint,” his wife replied, laughing at a family joke of some duration.

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After Corita’s death, Hayden was determined to do a film about the woman and the work. With partial financing from South Carolina ETV, he began a search for footage of Corita--a search that took months, endless pleading and led under beds and into closets and other half-forgotten archives. It paid off well.

There are glimpses of Corita with her classes, at the podium, making prints, and there are home movies as well of her with friends on a Massachusetts beach in the years when, after 32 years, she left the Immaculate Heart Community of nuns to begin a new life. There is footage as well by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who had studied with her and showed her in action.

Her Boston dealer, after much searching, found three rolls of 8mm film she thought were of Corita. Hayden projected them and, dismayed, found the film indecipherably black. But he sent it to South Carolina ETV, where it was cleaned and restored and proved to be the beach footage.

Saint herself, leafing through an untidy box of photos found under a bed in brother-in-law Frank Crowley’s house, unearthed a picture of Corita’s father that had been thought lost or non-existent.

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Hayden also taped nearly 60 hours of interviews with those who knew and loved Corita, including some of her students and fellow nuns and Crowley, who was devoted to her but confesses manfully that he never liked or understood her art.

Frances Elizabeth Kent had entered the Order of the Immaculate Heart Community when she was 17 and as a first assignment taught for three years at an Indian school in Canada. Protesting (gently enough), she was reassigned to teach art at the College, although she argued that all she could do was draw stick figures.

But it proved to be an assignment made in heaven. She challenged her students to think originally, to find art in the things and signs of everyday life. She once led her class on a sketching tour to a car wash. She took the new Pop Art tradition to a new seriousness. The Sunkist logo surfaced in a print called “As Witnesses to the Light,” honoring John Kennedy.

The seriousness, about war, the Watts Riots, man’s general inhumanity to man, was touched with an abiding hope and often with wry and subtle humor. “Somehow, The Crocuses Have Always Come Up,” was an anti-nuclear statement.

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At nearly 50, and after the Order had had a bitter and silencing fight with Cardinal McIntyre over such issues as the nun’s right to wear street clothes (this in the ferment after Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council), Corita left the order, the Church and Los Angeles to work solely as an artist in Boston, doing commissions and continuing to make her art a message board. She once said that a Boston billboard, commissioned by the Physicians for Social Responsibility and insisting “We Can Create Life Without War,” was her most religious work. Her “Love” stamp was printed in an edition of 700 million.

She fought cancer for nine years and died at the age of 67 in 1986.

There is no substitute for passion in the making of art, and “Primary Colors” carries an aura of love that both reflects and illuminates the love in Corita’s life and work.

It was written by Hayden and Amanda Pope, videographed by John Vujcec and edited by Kelley Cauthen.

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