United States: The Avant-Garde Nun Who Created The World's Largest Copyrighted Work Of Visual Art

Last Updated: January 5 2017
Article by Anthony Rufo

We are approaching the end of holiday travel season and you have likely been a visitor or had visitors over the past several weeks. If in your travels you've had cause to drive along interstate Route 93 just south of Boston, perhaps you noticed a large gas tank out across Dorchester Bay adorned with what seem like enormous paintbrush strokes in purple, green, blue, yellow and orange. Besides adding an unexpected touch of beauty to a utilitarian structure, the "Rainbow Swash," as the formally untitled work is commonly called, had the distinction of being the largest copyrighted work of visual art in the world when completed. That in and of itself is interesting enough. But what is truly fascinating is the story of the influential artist (of whom you have probably never heard) who painted the work.

A Nun's Artistic Journey Begins

Sister Mary Corita, a Catholic nun born Frances Elizabeth Kent in Iowa in 1918, took the veil at the age of 18 with the order of Sisters of the Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles. Perhaps improbably given her new calling, Sister Corita, as she was often called, studied art. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1941 from the school that ran her order, Immaculate Heart College. Sent to teach primary school in British Columbia after graduation, Sister Corita came back to Immaculate Heart to teach art in 1947. At this time, she also began graduate studies at the University of Southern California. While at USC, Sister Corita began working with silkscreens, the medium that would eventually catapult her to fame during a tumultuous time in art, and in the world.

Throughout the 1950s, Sister Corita won awards and increasing acclaim for her idiosyncratic print work. Her reputation as an artist and a teacher grew steadily during this time.

Pop Goes the World

The 1960s brought social as well as artistic change, and Sister Corita's work was no exception. In 1962, she first saw Andy Warhol's Soup Cans. Inspired, she joined the Pop movement, incorporating the colors and forms of the genre into her screen prints. Sister Corita did not, however, merely adopt established Pop idioms. She rather uniquely incorporated the written word within and around her visual forms, which was to become her signature. This style is evident in the large mural she was asked to create for the Vatican Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. She once remarked that she found delight in the fact that "the form throws light on the word and the word throws light on the form."

Accolades followed. In 1965, Sister Corita became the chair of the Immaculate Heart College art department. In 1966, The Los Angeles Times named her one of nine Women of the Year. She began to run in the circles of other ground-breaking artists of the time, including the singular Alfred Hitchcock, composer John Cage, graphic designer and filmmaker Saul Bass, and now-legendary mid-century modern furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames. They and many other artists would make pilgrimages to Immaculate Heart College to witness Sister Corita's renowned classes firsthand. Then, in December 1967, the artist found herself on the cover of the Christmas Day issue of Newsweek magazine, depicted to the left, which proclaimed "The Nun: Going Modern."

Controversial Times Lead to a Secular Conversion

Despite (or perhaps because of) Sister Corita's growing fame, the Archdiocese became critical of the artist's work and its influence. An anti-war activist, her work had begun to focus on the ideals of hope, love, and peace, which the church viewed as political and critical of the war in Vietnam. She also began to incorporate and comment upon commercial imagery, such as General Mills' famous cursive "G" logo and the polka dots and bright colors synonymous with Wonder Bread. Amid the criticism of her new works and mounting pressure from the church, Sister Corita took a sabbatical to Cape Cod.

She ultimately decided to leave the order in 1968. She moved to Boston and established herself as a professional artist under the name Corita Kent. The tank work was commissioned by the Boston Gas Company in 1971. It was well regarded in some circles, but was not without controversy. The mural's blue stripe was seen by some to contain an image of the Vietnamese Leader Ho Chi Minh. Although a peace activist, Kent denied incorporating such an image. She continued to work thereafter, but two bouts of cancer in the 1970s slowed her pace, and her acclaim faded. Kent's last significant work was the design for the U.S. Postal Service's annual "Love Stamp" in 1985. This image, depicted to the right, endures, but generally not in connection with the name of the artist. Corita Kent died in 1986.

Remembering a Great Artist

Recently, renewed interest has been shown in Kent's work. This year and last, an exhibit entitled "Corita Kent and the Language of Pop," was on display at the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the San Antonio Museum of Art. In 2015, Corita Kent: Art and Soul: The Biography was published. Nonetheless, her contributions to modern art are now all but overshadowed by the lasting fame of her male contemporaries like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Unfortunately, the original "Rainbow Swash" was destroyed when the gas tank it stretched across was decommissioned and taken down. The work, however, was recreated in 1992 on a twin gas tank at the same site, which displays the work to this day. If you ever have the chance to see it in person, perhaps it will remind you of the avant-garde nun who once took the art world by storm.

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