Sister Corita Kent, an artist who lives the body of Christ

Posted on December 8, 2008 by ELCA World Hunger

Another entry in our AIDS series by young adults, this post is written by Mary Button. Ms. Button is an Artist/Activist/writer; she works with Visual AIDS for the Arts and a creator of the Hymnbook Project (www.thehymnbookproject.org), http://actiontoaccess.blogspot.com/ She is a member of Advent Lutheran Church, NYC.

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For many, religious art conjures up images of Michelangelo lying on his back, way up high on scaffolding, wiping sweat from his eyes, painting The Sistine Chapel. Or gilded altars in Bavaria. Or the dark, brooding images of St. Peter’s crucifixion by Caravaggio. Our preconceptions of religious art are, all too often, intricately tied up in our societal definitions of what art is and what it isn’t. If it’s old, European and precious it’s Art; likewise if it’s modern, expensive and inscrutable it’s Art. For me, though, the very epitome of religious art has always been the day-glo color poetics found in the work on Sister Corita Kent.

An innovative artist working in a pop art vernacular, Kent was also the chair of the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles and a practicing nun. She left her religious community at the height of her success in 1968. Her works were calls of action. In a piece titled my people she pairs the front page of the August 14, 1965 edition of the Los Angeles Times, the fourth day of the Watts Riots – it’s bold headline reads “EIGHT MEN SLAIN; GUARD MOVES IN,” with the words of Father Maurice Ouellet, an Edmundite priest who was expelled from his Selma, Alabama parish by Archbishop Toolen who felt Ouellet too outspoken in his support of the Civil Rights Movement. Written in white in Kent’s handwriting against a red background are the words of Father Ouellet:

The body of Christ is no more comfortable now that it was when it hung from the cross. Those who live in the well organized, well ordered, nourished, clean, calm and comfortable middle-class part of Christ’s body can easily forget that the body of Christ, as it now exists, is mostly disorganized, devoid of order, concerned with the material needs, hungry, dirty, not motivated by reason, fermenting in agonizing uncertainty and certainly most uncomfortable. Youth is a time of rebellion. Rather than squelch the rebellion, we might better enlist the rebels to join that greatest rebel of his time – Christ himself.

These words move and inspire me. These words are a call to action. To be part of a Christian community implies membership in a community that holds sacred the power of words to heal and stories to create solidarity that transcends race, gender, class, sexuality and nationalism.

Where academic notions of religious art conjure up images of The Creation painted centuries ago Sister Corita Kent’s work directly engaged with her community and is still a powerful, plaintive cry for social change. In the face of all the social problems that fuel the AIDS pandemic – stigma, homelessness, racial inequality, gender based violence – art is a powerful means of communicating the church’s message on these issues. And what exactly should the message of the church be with regard to social issues? Namely, that membership in Christian community means joining a rebellion against a society that accepts as status quo these exacerbating factors. The artwork of Sister Corita Kent is a powerful example of what happens when an artist lives in the body of Christ as it now exists.

-Mary Button

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