Sister Corita's Summer of Love blog series—Mickey Myers

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Guest blog from Vermont-based artist Mickey Myers, student and friend of Sister Corita Kent

As Corita’s former student (Immaculate Heart College, Los Angeles, CA., 1962–1966), I subsequently became close friends with her in Boston. I was fortunate to have a unique point of view in watching her transition from life as a sister in a convent, to her life as an independent woman in Boston. Over the last several years of her life, we spoke on the phone daily, and I was able to observe her modus operandi as she made prints, created the largest copyrighted artwork in the world, The Rainbow Swash  (the Boston Gas Tank) and one of the smallest, the Love stamp for the US Postal Service. Her life and her artwork were never dull, and there was always a compelling ferment that took her through many projects and commissions, hundreds of prints, and many causes.

Until 1968, Corita was a full-time college professor, chair of the Art Department at Immaculate Heart College and a sister in the Immaculate Heart Community, living under a rigid rule with many daily rituals and obligations. Her printmaking was limited to three weeks in the summer (in the hot California summer), between summer school and fall semester, in which she worked with a team of helpers.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Art Department. Courtesy Corita Art Center, Los Angeles. 

Though she would be collecting ideas all year long, their fruition was limited to the teamwork of those weeks in August. While she would create the stencils and pull the prints herself, her assistants mixed the paint, hung the prints to dry and cleaned the screens. Corita worked in a non-climate controlled classroom or the silkscreen studio, fully clothed in her habit. Silence or only necessary talking was the order of the day and uninvited visitors who dropped by were asked politely if they wanted to join the team for the rest of the summer or leave.

This procedure changed radically when she left Los Angeles and worked from the East Coast with Harry Hambly and his printmaking studio in Northern California. She never again pulled a print herself after 1968.

Myers has selected and written about three works from Sister's Corita's Summer of Love.

To All of My Calling Your Name 1962

This improbable image came toward the latter part of Corita’s abstract expressionist period. Completed in one colour, the stencil was accomplished by her drawing with a glue formula directly on the silk, a method she used almost exclusively in the first decade of her printmaking. Your Name provides a continuum of her use of text, in this case a few words of a poem by Juan Ramon Jimenez. Her clearly abrupt conclusion of this print illustrates her belief in the ironic impact of the graphics of her writing, at once clear and perplexing. It is easy to read the text of her loose handwriting, while what she intended by the 'u' shapes that interrupts the writing is less clear. As she often noted, she allowed prints to 'build upon themselves'. In fact, she began this print by working from a child’s drawing without a real clear notion of where it would go. Seeing what she had a done, a friend pointed out that the shapes Corita had drawn—roughly—appeared to be some of the elements of the Persian iconography for the name of God. So Corita made the connection between calling upon God to a line from the Jimenez poem, “. . . .calling your name.” This illustration of one of Corita’s connections takes us to both her deeply religious roots and also to her belief in the value of building bridges between intent and happenstance.

This print also indicates what was on her mind at the time. In a sense, she considered her work a prayer, so much so, that she could leave this print alone after only one colour. It is helpful to view this print in the context of the other prints she did that year. There is an abandon in so many of them, which is clearly evident here. She is using her handwriting to convey a wave of emotional conviction. Some of the 1962 prints are without text, others are only text, and others utilise letters and parts of words, indicative of the urgency of her message to embrace the world as we know it and her mission as a Catholic sister to spread a message of love for mankind. While this work is not as direct and conclusive as her pop art prints that were to come in two years, she is bridging the lure and richness of colour with her social consciousness. She is calling out to everyone. Had she originally intended anything else for this print? Perhaps it is forever a work in progress, a shout out to whomever is reading the text.

Mary Does Laugh 1964

Market Basket was a chain of supermarkets in Southern California which represented the most innovative in grocery store shopping. In 1964, when a Market Basket store opened at the corner of Western and Franklin in Hollywood, across the street from the Immaculate Heart College Art Department, it was a dream come true for the students—they could now shop right across the street, in a market that included inventive design in the presentation of its goods.

At the same time, the Pop Art Revolution that was to absorb the art world for two decades was in full swing in Southern California, with frequent exhibits by the New York pop artists such as Warhol, Lichtenstein and Johns filling the galleries, which the students visited with Corita on their Friday field trips. All of this was taking place in a country numb from the assassination of its young President, John F. Kennedy, attempting to adjust in its aftermath to the policies of a new president, Lyndon B. Johnson. That January (1964), Johnson had introduced the concept of his War on Poverty, a series of social programmes (some still in effect today) which attempted to deal with a poverty rate of 19% in the US.

Corita’s students were as rigorously trained in the implications of social justice as in the ongoing developments in Pop Art. So Johnson’s War on Poverty, the dominance of pop art and the new Market Basket across the street all come up when we discussed a theme for that coming spring’s annual Mary’s Day, a campus celebration in honor of the Mother of Jesus.

There had been some discussion as to the relevance of calling a day of celebration Mary’s Day so as to avoid the saccharine sensibilities of traditional May processions at women’s colleges. Traditional Mary’s Days had been going on at Immaculate Heart College for decades, and had come to be a dreaded event except in the minds of a few older custodians of the institutional memory of the College. Corita herself had complained bitterly about the irrelevance of the day to the college president, who responded to her, “Then do something about it”. With Corita and the Art Department in charge of the day, the avoidance of clichés was a given. Within a few years, the resulting Mary’s Days became legendary celebrations of colour and song, graphics and theatrical gesture, bringing an awareness of social responsibility into a celebration of basic Catholic beliefs. 

To help with visuals for the Mary’s Day Procession, the art students asked for help from the clerks in the produce department at Market Basket, resulting in the use of advertising signs from the windows and walls of store. For Mary’s Day the Market Basket signs were made into banners and posters that covered both the exterior and interior of the college administration building, in front of which a colourful procession took place. And then they were saved for Corita to utilise in her annual summer of printing. In her opening remarks at Mary’s Day, college President Sister Mary William made a point of understanding who Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have been in our contemporary age, striking the now famous line, “Today, she’d probably do her shopping at Market Basket". These words are emblazed in day-glow colours across the surface of the top, left side of the Market Basket logo (Mar. . . .Bas). Words from other signs, such as Tomato, are evident on the right corner of the print.

The majority of Corita’s prints from 1964 were based on the Market Basket signs, and other billboard advertising. Within their graphic imagery was her connection from the ads to the poignant issues of social justice of the day.

The Circus Alphabet 1968

Corita was given a sabbatical from her teaching at Immaculate Heart College and spent its first three months at the Cape Cod summer home of her Boston gallery representative, Celia Hubbard. Here, she enjoyed daily walks on the beach, and a serenely quiet environment, away from what had become the cacophony of her increasing fame, the demand for her work and a busy teaching agenda. It was during this summer that she made the decision to leave the convent and not to return to Los Angeles. Ironically, it was also here that she enjoyed the most productive summer of her career. Previously, Corita had become acquainted with the silkscreen printing services of Harry Hambly and Company in Santa Rosa, California. Satisfied with his work, she chose to develop this series of prints (and two other series), working with Hambly through the mail (as these were the days before email, not that Corita would have utilised electronics anyhow.)

The imagery of these prints is largely from Victorian advertising plates, particularly utilising circus imagery in most but not all. In essence, she was doing the same thing she had done four years earlier in taking vernacular advertising (albeit this imagery from 100 years prior) and connecting it to issues and concerns that were important to her.

The alphabet letters that form the unifying graphic of each print came from erasers that had been hand carved with a circus font, hence the uneven quality to their surface. In sharp contrast to her earliest work, she is now solving her entire picture plane in two or three colours, depending far less on the transparency of the inks than on their striking opacity.

Of note: The alphabet “G” and “O” in this series were intended to be installed together. 

- Thank you Mickey