Image via Angel City Press
Every now and then but not often enough, a book that is desperately needed seemingly emerges out of nowhere. Once in an extremely infrequent while, said gem will also be such a remarkable specimen that readers want to expose its kaleidoscopic pages to the sky in belief that the color is powerful enough to brighten dark times. In some cases, the offering is also about Boston, and Corita Kent. Art and Soul. The Biography., out now on Angel City Press, is indeed such a significantly splendid volume.
A gorgeous 160-page spread that weighs and feels roughly the same as a four-album box set, this first Corita Kent biography is the masterwork of author April Dammann, a Los Angeles-based playwright-turned-art chronicler. Here Dammann tells the story of the legendary nun who broke from her conservative Los Angeles order and eventually wound up living in Back Bay—and the tale is every bit as jolting as Corita’s reinvention.
While Kent is probably best known for keeping company like Buckminster Fuller, and artistically for symbiotically inspiring the original King of Pop Andy Warhol, her legacy runs deeper than even many art buffs probably imagine. She’s the hand behind those ubiquitous USPS “Love” stamps, sure, and in Boston many know Corita for her rainbow stroke design for the gas tank off of I-93. We asked Dammann about all of the above, all together which make for a hardcover experience packed with lessons that remain as relevant today as they were when the artist passed almost three decades ago.
You do a lot of things, but what are you primarily up to?
AD: A few years ago I was fortunate enough to find my way to Angel City Press, on the UCLA campus. I had this idea for an art history and a biography—my first book [EXHIBITIONIST: Earl Stendahl, Art Dealer as Impresario] about my husband’s grandfather. In about 2007, I switched dramatically from fiction to nonfiction; before that time it was television and stage, and even radio dramas and a couple of movie scripts. But I really tuned into this niche of biography and Southern California art, which I know very much about but hadn’t really explored in the written word.
How do you think about the formatting during the process? I mean, even the fonts are incredible—you’re playing with three or four in a single chapter in some cases.
AD: I’m so glad you noticed that. There are also the colors, and the borders of photographs as well. I have to give credit to our wonderful book designer, Amy Inouye, who designs most of Angel City Press’s books. She lives and works in a funky studio here in Southern California, not far from me in Hollywood, and she has an eye for this. She reads the text scrupulously before she begins to approach her design ideas. I can’t say enough about her approach to books and designing.
Over the years, even long before you were writing the book, what Corita Kent images in particular really stuck with you?
AD: Well I’m an art historian, studied French, studied art history, and then married into this fascinating family of the [Stendahl Galleries] in Hollywood. My husband’s a third-generation art dealer, and we are now 104 years never having closed the doors. I was immersed in the Southern California art scene going back to the early part of the 20th Century as far as research goes. Once I dedicated myself, it was a train that I knew wouldn’t stop. That’s how Angel City Press approached me—“April, what’s your next book? You’re our art writer.”
Over a period of months, I became excited about the story of Corita Kent—local girl makes good from right here at Immaculate Heart in Hollywood. No one had written the definitive biography, and it fit what I wanted to do next—a female subject, someone local, and this dramatic arc to her life. I tell you I come from a screenwriting background—if there was ever an act one, two, and three, this woman just fits right in with that structure … And I love the process of the research—a lot of people are still local. She died in ’86, but there are a lot of students of hers who are now older and in their ’50s and ’60s who have the most wonderful memories of working with her and learning from her.
As someone who knows the local art scene so well, what really blew you away in the discovery process?
AD: It was her work. These works scream HOPE, LOVE, COLOR. They were unusual, they were inventive. It’s true that Warhol was beginning to exploit commercialism and to show irony in our everyday life, but Corita really influenced many more people than she was influenced by—I’m convinced of that. It started with her artwork—those beautiful prints on the wall, the color, the graphics, the invention of them. And I have to admit—knowing a nun, in full habit, was in a little stuffy concrete house across from the college in Hollywood turning these out every August, I find that fascinating.
Were you able to make it out to Boston in the research process?
AD: Sure, I went to Harvard and studied for about a week in the Schlesinger Library [on the History of Women]. What a little gem that is; I was only there for five days, but I felt I could have moved in … They have a marvelous Corita Kent archive. Then I had to take a drive on the Southeast Expressway to see that unbelievable gas tank painted with the rainbow swath that Corita did in the ’80s, shortly before she died.
Isn’t Corita Kent the kind of hero who deserves a renaissance? Might we see one? What will it take? And if so, how much might your work have to do with that?
AD: I think she was under-exposed and under-appreciated for decades. She died in ’86, and she is thankfully enjoying something of a resurgence right now. Hopefully it will have something to do with my biography, but also due to this large retrospective exhibition that started in Saratoga Springs at Skidmore College, and it’s gone four or five places since. There are almost 300 prints on display, and it’s a beautifully-curated show. If a lot of people go to the museums, they’re going to re-discover, and in a lot of cases discover the work of Corita Kent.
She was a pop artist, but much more than that. The way she approached social justice and anti-war [activism]—always with optimism and hope—I think the world is so ready for her right now. You know, I was driving just earlier today, and I heard about the Supreme Court and same-sex marriage, and I got goose bumps thinking about it: “What would Corita, as an independent woman living in Boston for the last 16 years or so of her life, what would she think about this today?” I think she’d be blowing up balloons. I would love to talk to Corita about these issues, so what I’ve done is try to get in her head and heart, and to share in this book what a progressive, beautiful, and big-hearted person she was.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.