Sister Corita Kent
Ray Smith PhD, director of the Corita Arts Center.
The only rule is work: Corita Kent at Immaculate Heart College
March 1, 2016
by Ray Smith
Corita Kent (1918-1986) was an artist, educator, and advocate for social justice who worked primarily in serigraphy. She began her teaching career as Sister Mary Corita at Immaculate Heart College (IHC) in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s. The religious order she was a member of, the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), was a teaching order and, upon completion of her education, Corita was sent to teach in a primary school in British Columbia. But Corita was known as being artistic and, when the college was seeking accreditation, it was suggested that they call her back to the US and add her to the IHC faculty. At that time, Sr. Magdalen Mary was the only art professor and at least two were necessary to be an accredited art program.
As teaching was integral to the order, IHMs were placed as teachers as soon as they were professed nuns. Though many concurrently worked towards their BA, they did not have much foundational education when they became teachers. Speaking about a campus event she was in charge of in the early 60s, Corita said, “We came in as good amateurs come in, with the idea that everything was possible.” This concept seems to have applied to the way Corita developed her pedagogy. Without much theoretical grounding, she worked from instinct. It was helpful, in a way, not to know the “right” way to do something because it allowed her to advance new approaches. Corita innovated her curriculum and, with it, she hoped to show her students their own potential.
Since that time, many examples of the challenging, extensive, and process-based assignments Corita developed have been documented in the book Learning by Heart (1992). In its pages are assignments like: Cut 110 two-by-three inch cards from magazines and make a list of uses for design layouts using these cards; and, with a finder (a small masking tool Corita often used), make 10 contour drawings from a photograph. Each should be the same size as the original photograph. Then do another contour drawing for each of the ten you drew, also the size of the original. When teaching, Corita’s assignments would often build on each other in this way. A student might use those 110 magazine cards for another project. The box installations students created for one project might find their way to become the backdrop for a theatre production.
These assignments had an important underpinning. Their scope and volume functioned as a way to break down fear. By being forced to produce so much so quickly, students did not have time to think (or agonize), only to make. Corita wanted her students to approach art in a more relaxed and less intimidated way. She did not make distinctions between art, craft, or even practice. She did not want herstudents to think that art was something that was separate from their lives or above them, or that only objects sequestered in a museum counted as art. The IHC Art Department collected folk art to use as inspiration for a similar reason; it was viewed as more approachable than other forms of art. The department motto, based on a Balinese saying, was: “We have no art, we do everything as well as we can.” To this day, many graduates of IHC often comment that even though they did not become artists, they do things artistically.
Corita’s teaching influenced her own art in many ways. In a very practical, logistical way, when Corita was teaching, she made her art mostly during a three-week break between the end of summer classes and the start of fall term. During the school year, Corita drew inspiration from her students. In several of her works, she illustrated the words or writings of her students. Even later in her life, she followed her own assignments; during her plein air watercolor sessions, she’d often make ten or more paintings of the same thing at one time.
The aim of Corita’s pedagogical approach was to transform students’ methods into artistic practice that could be applied to any type or scope of work. She did this by confronting students with a problem that had only had one solution: work. She also accomplished this by subverting ideas about the nature and definition of art. For this reason, her methods continue to be innovative even decades after their implementation in the classroom, and after her death.
At the Corita Art Center, where I am director, we tend to Corita’s legacy by loaning her work for exhibitions, serving as a resource for researchers, and developing programs based on her methods. Today, there are a variety of responses to her famous massive assignments. When I ask high school students how they would approach the assignment of making 100 drawings of something, their first response is usually that they would not do it. But I think this comes from that place of fear that Corita was trying to overcome. When I ask them how many photos they have in their phones, they realize how not being afraid of something increases their comfort and, ultimately, their ability to do something. That is the transformative power of Corita’s lessons.
Ray Smith is the Director of the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles. She received her MA in Arts Policy and Administration from the Ohio State University and her PhD in Art Education from the University of North Texas. Her work focuses on how the arts can strengthen communities.
 Los Angeles Art Community: Group Portrait Corita Kent. Interviewed by Bernard Galm. 1977.