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LA's 'Pop Art Nun' Was A Rebel. Her Legacy Has The City Reckoning With The Way It Preserves Its Own Art History

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Silkscreen artist Corita Kent, aka Sister Mary Corita, 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.

Her comments on consumerism and social upheaval were not judgmental, but infused with 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.

Since the 1960s, Kent's work has continually appeared in exhibitions in L.A. and around the world. Dozens of institutions added her prints to their collections, including LACMA, the Hammer Museum, the Whitney Museum, MOMA, and the Library of Congress.

But the building where it all happened is, put nicely, utilitarian.

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City staff contended that Kent's work in L.A. is worth recognizing, but didn't find that preserving her studio building in Hollywood 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 — 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.

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