Image via Angel City Press
OUT OF THE DARKNESS
The following is an excerpt from Corita Kent. Art and Soul. The Biography. by April Dammann. Published by Angel City Press, 2015.
In the summer of 1968, Sister Corita takes what might be a lifesaving sabbatical in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, staying with her friend and East Coast gallerist, Celia Hubbard (a Catholic convert) of the Botolph Gallery, where Sister Corita’s work is a centerpiece to the other offerings of contemporary religious paintings and sculpture. Unbeknownst to Corita, Celia has written to the IHC president warning her that the nun’s mental state demands a rest and a change of scene.
Celia is heaven-sent as host and companion. Not just for the environment and the space she provides, but for giving her friend a sense of well-being that Sister Corita so desperately needs, now that her perpetual safety net is gone.
As evidence of the restorative experience at the beach, Corita produces voluminous work, including two large series of serigraphs as alphabet letters: the International Signal Code flags and the circus-themed assemblage. Each set of prints covers an entire wall with color and whimsy, twenty-six squares at a time.
Sister Corita is perpetually attuned to the beauty and rhythms of nature. Unscheduled time with Celia on the Cape nourishes her to the point of a quiet but profound personal discovery: she no longer has a heart for being responsible for anyone but herself.
“I found teaching really always very hard, because I think I always maintained the feeling that I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t quite up to it. So I worked very hard, and I think I made classes very good, because I wasn’t too sure of myself.” Sister Corita calls her teaching success “a painful bonus.”
In 1936, teenaged Frances Kent Shocked her friends by announcing her decision to become a nun. She hadn’t talked about it. She hadn’t shared her own plans, during discussions with other girls at Catholic High, who were preparing for postulancy in local religious orders. Now, in the summer of 1968, comes an unexpected decision that surprises everyone, including, to some extent, herself: Sister Mary Corita IHM will not return to her former life. Corita is no longer a nun.
Corita renounces the known for the unknown, thousands of miles from her cloistered home of thirty-two years. She cannot imagine what it will mean to leave, at age fifty, the comfort and protection of her convent. Facing the mysteries of budgeting, bank accounts, bills, taxes, and rent, not to mention male companionship and the prospect of a solitary old age, Corita relies on an enduring (she would say, evolving) faith and a little help from her friends. Still, what kind of new life is she equipped to construct?
Once again, survival with style comes to mind. There is fear. There is loneliness. But if anyone has the resources to go it alone on a path toward total reinvention, it is the woman who will be known today and hereafter as Corita Kent.
“Powerful” might be overstating Corita’s self-concept in the months following her relocation to Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. She moves from Celia’s living room to her own Victorian row-house apartment, with all the hopes and trepidations of any woman newly on her own. Corita’s adjustment to solitude requires an extra measure of courage, considering she had two hundred roommates in her previous abode.
Her new place is small, bright, and airy. Corita is finally in a position to surround herself, modestly, with things of her own choosing, as if creating a three-dimensional custom work of art. Accents of color contrast with a mostly white-and-black schema that could be a Charles Eames showroom, dominated as it is, with Eames furniture. One exception: a rocking chair in front of the fireplace. Corita’s eye for beauty and balance assures the simple chair’s good fit.
The house is guarded outside by a maple tree that becomes aesthetically and symbolically important to Corita. She has traveled the world in all seasons, but her Southern California life did not afford her the opportunity to enjoy a climate’s multiple personalities. Her proprietary tree is an ever-changing yet predictable friend, whose attributes appear in serigraphs from this period. “I’ve never had time to watch a tree before,” she admits. Corita’s watching is a prayer.
Corita observes the way springtime melts snow from her tree’s branches, bringing forth tiny green blossoms. In this iteration, the tree doesn’t look at all like a maple. Gradually, the leaves grow into their recognizable shape, and an identity emerges. Corita sees parallels in the stages of her own life. Noticed or not by someone else, positive transformations are quietly taking place inside her. Just as new life bursts forth in nature, Corita Kent is sure of her own flowering.