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ART : Legacy of an Artist : Corita Kent wanted her work to be accessible. Her last watercolors are still available at a North Hollywood gallery.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times. </i>

Corita Kent (1918-86) wanted people to appreciate and enjoy good art, and she made sure it was accessible to them. Not only did she keep the price of her colorful and often provocative serigraph (silk screen) prints low, but she also was not above putting her designs on cards, T-shirts, posters, bumper stickers and billboards to get her messages across.

Of her 1985 billboard done for the Physicians for Social Responsibility that declared, “We can create life without war,” she told New Yorker magazine: “The idea is to put it before people’s eyes every day, until eventually they realize they are part of that ‘We.’ ”

Corita, as she preferred to be known, would have been 74 years old today. She was in the news last week because one of Boston’s biggest landmarks--the liquefied natural gas tank next to an expressway that was adorned with her 150-foot rainbow--was torn down the week before. Plans call for two-inch painted pieces of the tank to be offered for sale as paperweights starting next year. This spring, the rainbow will be re-created on an adjacent gas tank.

Occasionally, one may still come across her more famous designs on note cards--such as the red heart with the word “Love” scrawled on it in her own handwriting--or the 22-cent “Love” postage stamp with her bright strokes of color. It sold more than 700 million copies.

But Corita had created more than 800 limited-edition series before her death six years ago. Several hundred of her prints, as well as reproductions of them, and her last watercolors are still available at Corita Prints in North Hollywood.

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Her work dates to the 1950s, when she was a nun in the order of Sisters of the Immaculate Heart in Hollywood. She taught art at Immaculate Heart College beginning in 1946, and eventually headed the art department.

In 1968, she left the order, moved to Boston and focused on her art. Her undogmatic view of life, her abstract Expressionist style, and her affinity for the words of songwriters such as Lennon and McCartney, and philosophers, poets and politicians were not always appreciated by the Catholic church hierarchy.

An example of her atypical way of viewing things is in her print, “Mary Does Laugh.” It says: “Mary does laugh, and she sings and runs and wears bright orange. Today she’d probably do her shopping at the Market Basket.”

Commercial commissions afforded her the opportunity to make prints for groups involved in social causes. During her career, Corita was asked to create artwork for everyone from Group W Westinghouse, Wonder Bread and Sunkist to Caesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, the McGovern campaign, and Amnesty International.

“I like her style, and I like what she represents in the church at that time--a new way of life and relationships. At the time, she was revolutionary and hopeful,” said Blaise Brockman, a priest at St. Didacus Catholic Church in Sylmar. A collector of Corita’s work, he recently dropped by the gallery.

Shortly after Corita’s move to Boston, the gallery on Vineland Avenue was organized by her sister, Mary Downey, who lived around the corner, and Gladys Collins, a retired teacher. Collins ran it until she died about 2 1/2 years ago, at the age of 90. Lucile Myers, who has been working there for 15 years, has continued to keep the gallery open to the public three days a week.

“I love having these beautiful things around me,” Myers said.

Her daughter, artist Mickey Myers, was a student of Corita’s at Immaculate Heart, and had become a close friend of hers. Mickey Myers co-produced the film documentary, “Primary Colors: The Story of Corita,” with Jeffrey Hayden.

In 1979, another of Corita’s students and friends, artist Jan Steward, suggested to Corita that someone write a book about her teaching methods, which Steward considers Corita’s greatest gift. Corita told Steward to do it.

Together, they finished the text of “Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit,” in 1986. Published in August of this year, the gallery will celebrate with an open house and book signing by Jan Steward on Dec. 6.

In the book’s preface, Corita states: “We can all talk, we can all write, and if the blocks are removed, we can all draw and paint and make things. . . . Doing and making are acts of hope, and as that hope grows, we stop feeling overwhelmed by the troubles of the world.”

Where and When Location: Corita Prints, 5126 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood. Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Other: Jan Steward will sign copies of the book, “Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit” from 1 to 4 p.m. Dec. 6. Call: (818) 985-9370.


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