How LA's Pop Art Nun Left Her Mark On The City

Wonderbread, serigraph. By Corita Kent. 1962 (Photograph by Arthur Evans, Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles)

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Silkscreen artist Corita Kent was known in the art world as the Pop Art Nun. A member of the order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Feliz between 1936 and 1968, her work was a rebellious take on religious art. In 1966, she was named an L.A. Times Woman of the Year.

So when Nellie Scott, director of the Corita Art Center, found out that the small studio in East Hollywood where Kent did some of her most significant work was going to be razed for a parking lot, she was devastated.

"It really was just a gut punch," she said. "A plaque just wouldn't do it justice."

And so, in September 2020, Scott launched an effort to designate the building as a historical landmark. Scott argued that even though the building lacked architectural significance, it was worthy of the designation based on the person who occupied it and the work she produced there.

City of L.A. staff disagreed. Arguing that the building wouldn't be recognizable to the artist who taught and created there for almost a decade, they recommended that Scott's application be rejected.

The exterior of the building that housed Corita Kent's studio in the 1960s. (Courtesy Corita Art Center)

COMMUNITY SUPPORT DESPITE CITY RECOMMENDATION

When the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission met and heard the application on Dec. 17, though, things went differently.

The argument in favor of designating Kent's former studio as a historic landmark was made by Scott, of the Corita Art Center, and Kathryn Wollan, an independent historic preservationist who grew up in the neighborhood. The argument against designation was made by the developer, Blake Megdal of Franklin Western Partners, LLC. The Immaculate Heart order rented the building from shortly after its 1959 construction through 1968, and it has had numerous tenants since.

But the real case seemed to be made by the community. Family, friends, former students and total strangers who have connected to Corita Kent's art and legacy, flooded the Zoom meeting's public comment period, almost entirely in support of designating the building a historic monument. It didn't stop for an hour.

At the close of comment, Richard Barron, the commission's president, said he was "[a] little overwhelmed."

"I think we had more ... public comment on this item than any item that I've been involved on the commission," he said. "And I've been on the commission for close to 15 years."

All of that comment had an effect on Barron's opinion, who said, "though when it first came before us I was not supportive of it becoming a monument, I've changed my mind."

SISTER CORITA

Corita Kent in her nun's habit. (Courtesy of Corita Art Center)

Frances Elizabeth Kent was born in Iowa in 1918, moving to Los Angeles with her family in 1923. At age 18, she joined the order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and took the religious name Sister Mary Corita.

In 1947, she joined the art department at Immaculate Heart College as an instructor, challenging her students to think beyond traditional conventions by reinterpreting L.A.'s landscape.

Sister Corita frequently took her classes on what she called "slow-looking" trips around Hollywood, finding beauty in car lots and street signs. Her outlook was driven in part by religious faith — an ability to breathe the gospel into even the most mundane cityscape — and also a personal artistic vision. She saw art as the product of absorbing one's surroundings and creating in great volume, without inhibition. Her approach was rigorous — Kent is known for a list of classroom rules, popularized by John Cage, one of which being "the only rule is work" — but she was also freespirited.

The building where it all happened is, put nicely, utilitarian. But Sister Corita filled it with colorful and joyful work. In her own art, she reimagined billboards and advertising in a bright, vivid conversation between God and the social and political turmoil of the 1960s, printing in response to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.

Sister Mary Corita soon became known as the "pop art nun." She was named a 1966 L.A. Times Woman of the Year, and in 1967 was on the cover of Newsweek. While her earliest work created figurative depictions of religious figures, in the early 1960s she transitioned into an iconoclastic new way of representing her faith.

manflowers, serigraph, 1969. Corita Kent. (Courtesy of Corita Art Center)

Kent's comments on consumerism and social upheaval were not judgmental, but infused everyday joy. Her colorful screenprints, mass-produced by a troupe of students and fellow nuns, were distributed in un-numbered editions to spread her message of love and hard work.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese pushed back on the radical nature of Kent's art, but the newly progressive Vatican embraced her, even inviting Kent to design its pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.

The global art world embraced Sister Mary Corita, too. Since the 1960s, her work has continually appeared in exhibitions in L.A. and around the world. Dozens of institutions around the world added her prints to their collections, including LACMA, the Hammer Museum, the Whitney Museum, MOMA, and the Library of Congress.

One of Kent's most famous pieces recreated the iconic circles from Wonderbread bags. The inspiration for that work was found in a grocery store across the parking lot from her East Hollywood studio.

In nun's habit, with students in tow, she went into the Market Basket and hunted for inspiration on the newsstand or the logo of Del Monte Tomato Sauce, "and then they would march across the parking lot into this space and begin screen printing," Scott said.

In the 1970's, Sister Mary Corita became Corita Kent when she left the order, and also left L.A. She was exhausted by the simultaneous strains of teaching and creating, and the relief of a sabbatical in Massachusetts led her to seek dispensation from her vows. (Around the same time, the order had been in a battle with the L.A. Archdiocese over independence — the subject of a new documentary, "Rebel Hearts," that just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.) The East Hollywood building that once housed Kent's studio is the only remaining space in the city tied to her work.

INTEGRITY A POTENTIAL GATEKEEPER

City staff contended that Kent's work in L.A. is worth recognizing, but didn't find that preserving this building was the way to do it. Most of the city's historical buildings are architectural gems, such as centuries-old adobes or the Art Deco City Hall building.

But Adrian Scott Fine, the L.A. Conservancy's director of advocacy, argues that if a run-down building such as Kent's former studio can be saved, it could change the way L.A. thinks about its own art history, and how it's preserved. The L.A. Conservancy ties an integrity-based evaluation, at least in part, to some startling statistics — that only 3% of Historic-Cultural Monuments are associated with women's history, and only 8% are associated overall with women's, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ history.

"When there's this focus on kind of the materiality, or the physical aspects of a building, that can be a barrier, or, in some ways, a gatekeeper," Fine said. The L.A. Conservancy believes that the qualifier of integrity holds back underrepresented groups at the gates to designation, because they are less likely to have worked in spaces that have maintained architectural integrity.

In the end, the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission agreed. They voted unanimously to designate the building a historic monument. The recommendation now goes to the L.A. City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee.

If committee members' response to public support is anything like that of the commissioners, things are looking good.

This little building, according to Scott, can help us reimagine the history in our own backyards.

"I think that that's some of the magic of Corita, that it is such a utilitarian building," Scott said. Kent encouraged her viewers to "look at ordinary things, and make them extraordinary."

This story first ran on our newsroom's local news and culture show, Take Two, which airs on 89.3 KPCC. You can listen to the segment below: