- Corita Kent: Gentle Revolutionary of the Heart by Rose Pacatte
Reading even the briefest description of Corita Kent, “60s pop artist nun,” one wonders why Rose Pacatte’s is the first book on Kent emerging from the Catholic orbit. Readers unfamiliar with Kent may marvel at the diversity of her influences (such as Buckminster Fuller, Andy Warhol, Pope John XXIII), her notable friendships (Judy Collins, Harvey Cox, and Daniel Berrigan are mentioned here), and the exuberant flair that marks the art in which she synthesized postwar American and Catholic culture. Kent’s story intersects with many currents in twentieth-century American Catholicism, and Pacatte’s work should offer a compelling introduction for those interested in Kent’s place in that history.
The first quarter of the book narrates Kent’s standard Catholic upbringing in Depression-era Los Angeles and traditional formation as a member of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM). The second quarter of the book, its two most compelling chapters, lays out Kent’s art education, the innovative and idiosyncratic pedagogy she developed in the Immaculate Heart College Art Department, and her life-changing encounter with Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. This last, according to Pacatte, began “Corita’s transition from subjects influenced by religion to those that brought the sacred and the secular together” (29). [End Page 67]
Beyond Kent’s art and teaching, her involvement in the high-profile conflict between Cardinal James McIntyre and the IHMs will also be of interest to scholars working on the Catholic 1960s. In sum, “To the cardinal, Corita’s art was sacrilegious” (51). More broadly, Pacatte does fine work detailing the conflict, highlighting how the sisters’ various efforts in pursuit of Vatican-sanctioned reforms clashed with McIntyre’s essentially reactionary outlook. Pacatte’s recurring talent for understatement is especially evident in these chapters, as when she observes of the cardinal that “He is remembered as someone who followed the rules” (48).
The book’s final two chapters deal with something of the artist’s legacy as Sister Mary Corita, IHM before treating her departure from religious life, after which she moved to Boston and continued her career as Corita Kent. During this period, Kent pursued new artistic directions, including producing two of her best-known works: the rainbow swash which adorns a gas tank in Boston (the largest copyrighted work of art in the world) and the best-selling “Love” U.S. postage stamp. Pacatte delicately traces Kent’s final years, her romantic frustrations, and her struggle against the cancer which eventually claimed her life, finishing the book with a heartfelt reflection on her value for today’s audiences. Presenting Kent as a sort of proto-seeker who “journey[ed] in the mystery of God” (99), Pacatte concludes, “Corita’s gift was that she juxtaposed ordinary images, slogans, and words that pointed to the ironic, yes, but to greater, transcendent realities” (100).
The strength of this book is that it ably incorporates key archival sources, some new research, and especially the voices of Kent’s students to convey something of her whimsical charm while chronicling the many important facets of her life, all in roughly 100 pages. Like the other wonderful biographies in the Liturgical Press People of God series, this work is certainly an “inspiring biography for the general reader.” The work has a generally reverent and occasionally prayerful tone, though academic readers may notice some (mostly inconsequential) loose ends. For instance, Pacatte notes that “It will be interesting to see if [Daniel] Berrigan, who died in 2016, kept Corita’s letters,” and elsewhere, the mention of “a conversation about Corita [Pacatte] had with a former IHM sister” is footnoted with, simply, “2016.” However, compared with other subjects in this series, such as Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Day, the lack of religiously-minded literature on Kent means that Pacatte’s work feels fresh and will almost certainly treat readers to a few pleasant surprises along the way. [End Page 68]