Tapping Sister Corita’s creative process
The book “Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit” -- based on the work of the late Sister Corita, a legendary art instructor from L.A.'s Immaculate Heart College -- had little immediate effect when it came out in 1992. “It kind of fell flat,” said Jan Steward, a former student who co-wrote the book.
But in the years since, the copiously illustrated primer attracted more and more fans. “It acquired this cult status -- copies were selling for $250 a piece on the Internet,” said Steward, a graphic artist who once created album covers for George Harrison and Ravi Shankar.
Now, the New York-based Allworth Press has published a new edition of the book, as Sister Corita’s legacy has endured and her work has seen a revival.
Her silk-screen prints have been increasingly shown in museums and galleries in the U.S. and Europe. Locally, Cal State Northridge’s art gallery recently held a show; South Pasadena’s LouWe Gallery is exhibiting her work through the end of the month; and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels will hold a retrospective in September.
“She’s being discovered by a whole new audience,” said Cindy Burlingham, director of the Grunwald Center at the UCLA Hammer Museum, home to one of the largest collections of Corita’s work. “There’s an awareness for the first time of the broad spectrum of what she achieved.”
“Her art has a sense of affirmation and honesty that is very appealing,” added Aaron Rose, the director of “Become a Microscope,” a documentary film about the nun that has been shown on the festival circuit. “And her style, a use of appropriated text and neon color, is very contemporary. More than that, I’d say it’s very hot.”
Beginning in 1946 and continuing for two decades, Sister Corita taught art classes at the now-defunct Immaculate Heart College in L.A. Her network of friends included Alfred Hitchcock, Charles and Ray Eames, Buckminster Fuller and John Cage.
Gripped by the antiwar protests of the late 1960s, she responded by creating silk-screen posters, known for their playful and provocative use of collage. Her activism put her at loggerheads with then-Los Angeles Cardinal James McIntyre; the dispute even landed her on the cover of Newsweek in 1967, with the headline reading: “The Nun: Going Modern.”
After she left the Immaculate Heart of Mary order in 1968, moving to Boston to work as an artist under the name Corita Kent, she designed a “Love” stamp for the U.S. Post Office.
Consisting of simple, multicolored brush strokes, it became a bestseller, with more than 700 million issued after coming out in 1985. (Its design is replicated on the cover of “Learning by Heart.”)
Fame, however, was the last thing on her mind. Corita’s teaching always came first, and it was her ability to inspire students, often using unorthodox methods, that Steward sought to put into their book.
“I tried to capture what it was like to be in one of her classes,” said Steward, now 80 and living in Los Feliz. “I looked at the job of writing the book as typical of the assignments that Corita would give us.”
Steward took her first class with the nun in 1958, and she vividly remembers the often crazy challenges. “In that first class, the assignment was to draw three inches of your arm,” Steward said. “She made it very clear we had the whole arm to chose from.” Looking back, Steward understood, “the purpose of this was to make sure you never assumed anything. She wanted you to open yourself up to possibilities.”
Other assignments were not so easy. “One time she said, ‘I want 700 statements about women’s clothing,’ ” Steward recalled. “It produced so many ideas. And doing it was so hard, I became less concerned about the art.”
“She wanted the organizational part of the brain to be fully occupied, so the other parts of the brain would be able to go free,” said another former student, Katherine Glascock, who encouraged Steward during the writing of “Learning by Heart.”
Creating a book that challenges readers to observe their world with fresh eyes and is full of advice on how to demystify the creative process was no easy task.
“Corita was loath to formalize things,” noted Glascock. “She thought something would become calcified the moment it was written down.”
But Steward adopted a Corita-like process: She scribbled her teacher’s thoughts on pieces of paper, found copies of her lessons and collected stories from other former students. Then, she threw each into a cardboard box that most closely matched a particular part of Corita’s curriculum. The contents of each box turned into chapters such as “Looking,” “Sources,” “Structure” and “Connect and Create.”
In the beginning, Steward, working from home and surrounded by her precious boxes, would send ideas to the former nun in Boston; the latter would then make comments. But in 1986, two years after this back-and-forth began, Corita Kent died.
Steward, who had a contract from Bantam, was determined to complete the book. And she did, throwing in a wide range of imagery to illustrate it: a carved watermelon from Thailand, photos of the reception room at the Eames office, a sequence of Sister Corita making one of her famous serigraphs, even Balinese calendars.
“One of the art department’s mottoes was adopted from the Balinese,” Steward recalled of her Immaculate Heart days. “ ‘We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.’ ”
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