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How a Radical Nun Became Best Friends with Charles Eames

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"What we, who love Immaculate Heart, want for the college is easier to taste then it is to say—" began Charles Eames's plea to the Los Angeles Times imploring the community to save the imperiled institution. The year was 1967 and Los Angeles's most avant-garde art institution was a seminary helmed by the fierce Sister Corita Kent, America's highly unlikely champion of the Pop Art phenomena. The plea continues, "We want these buildings to demand something of those who enter them and to enrich and shelter those who remain within."

Born Frances Elizabeth Kent from Dodge, Iowa, in 1918, Corita Kent, alongside her blood sister, joined Immaculate Heart at the tender age of 18. There, armed with scant resources and little guidance, she took it upon herself to learn serigraphy, or silk-screening—which still had the unseemly connotations of plebeian frugality. This June, roughly 250 of Corita's prints will decamp to the Pasadena Museum of California Art for the largest full-scale retrospective of her work. The exhibition, Someday Is Now, runs until November 1st and will examine the breadth of her work—everything from Brillo pads to the Civil Rights Movement is memorialized—which relied upon a playful juxtaposition of high and low culture.

Often described as a joyful harbinger of Andy Warhol, Sister Corita's vivid work gleefully mixes scripture and lyric, advertorial and religious iconography, and, of course, the looming idea of what's right and wrong. Sister Corita rejected the staunch amorality of post-war art and instead, like Charles and Ray Eames, was consumed by a desire to do the right thing. Often described as her mentor, it was after she met Charles Eames in 1955 that she began to introduce words into her work. Later, she would do small projects for him here and there—a screen-print of a wire chair, the calligraphy on a poster, a studio visit with her students.

Photo of Eames' wire chairs in PMCA's exhibition via Esoteric Survey

Although the exact details of how Sister Corita Kent befriended Charles and Ray Eames, the madcap postwar design couple, are, by now, quite blurry, it's very likely that she was bold and forthright about it: Under the guise of her cheekily titled Great Men Lecture Series, Sister Corita wrote to a cadre of complete strangers— Alfred Hitchcock, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller—and, very simply, asked them to come and help her teach. And, most of them did.

Under Sister Corita's watchful eye, Immaculate Heart became a veritable factory of experimental printmakers, activists, and, as dubbed by Newsweek, "The Modern Nun." In fact, George Nelson reportedly once complained that the only thing wrong with Immaculate Heart College was that he couldn't send his son to it.

The Archbishop James McIntyre was not a fan. A precursor to the radical right of the '70s, he often described Corita's work as "weird and sinister." However, it wasn't until 1968 that the Catholic Church gave the seminary an ultimatum—they could rein in artmaking and political demonstration, or dispense of their vows completely. However, by the time the nuns chose to leave and form their own private organization, Sister Corita was long gone. She died in 1986.