20 Jul 2016

Summer of Love

From Upbeat, 1:21 pm on 20 July 2016
Roman Catholic nun, activist and artist Sister Corita Kent

Roman Catholic nun, activist and artist Sister Corita Kent Photo: Supplied

Described as a "Joyous Revolutionary" Sister Corita was a Roman Catholic nun who captured the civil rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War and condemns the assassinations of the American political leaders in her artwork.

Sister Corita’s Summer of Love is a joint venture between City Gallery of Wellington and New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Gallery and has been curated by its director Simon Rees. The exhibition is made up of 70 prints created during the swinging 60s until the late 70s.

Kathryn Ryan speaks with Simon about Sister Corita and the Summer of Love exhibition that opens at City Gallery Wellington this weekend.

Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:

What an interesting woman. Why do we know so little about her in this part of the world?

I’m not quite sure. We have the Church of England written into our core, but maybe because the 60s never happened here. They sort of happened in the 70s and 1981 around a different set of issues, because the good sense of our government not being in Vietnam, nor being involved in secret bombings in South East Asia and of course we haven’t had to suffer the assassination of our political leaders. So we have kind of been on the periphery of a number of those things.

The Catholic Church – actually quite powerful here in New Plymouth, with a large Polish and Irish immigrant population here – hasn’t had that same grasp on imagination elsewhere in the country. Though as the exhibition was up here over the summer and coming again to Wellington, different people have written or told me and reflected anecdotally of being aware of Corita and things about her being in Catholic newsletters and magazines here in New Zealand and Australia.

So there is somehow a little percolation of knowledge, but she never hit the mainstream.

She has been described as a “joyous revolutionary”, which is one of the best ways to be remembered, isn’t it?

It is. The fact is that like advertising, it doesn’t carry its messages in a dour way, ever. Even if it’s using lack or sorrow to make you buy something and to tell a story, her colours are bright. The text is so fun in the way it curls typographically. Even when she is telling a grim story… I mean, red, white and blue are symbolic colours and the absolute fluorescent alphabet means that you kind of get an upbeat feeling, even if the text when you read it is about something rather more mundane or serious.

Was there always a message in her work, do you think?

Yes. She was a great friend of the late activist priest Daniel Berrigan, who listeners would have heard inspired the three activists who slashed Huapai. I heard on the radio on Sunday they were Catholic activists. But among his teaching and his writing, he was a poet activist and political theorist. There was always this thing called hope. There was always a sense that activism came out of your love of your fellow man.

Wonder Bread (1965) by Sister Corita Kent

Wonder Bread (1965) by Sister Corita Kent Photo: Supplied

Can you describe the range of artwork that will be in this exhibition?

All of the works in the exhibition are serigraphs, which is a silk screen print. The earlier works in the exhibition and the late works in the exhibition are done quite simplistically a couple of times through the silk screen press. In this period in the middle at the height of her powers between 1962-69, they go many times through the press and they are really rich with colour. There are multiple layers, multiple images, play with language and real density and fluorescence. The colours have really kept their power for these last 50 years remarkably well.

Both here in New Plymouth and in Wellington - this time curated by Robert Leonard, City Gallery’s chief curator - there are some New Zealand, Australian and American works alongside Corita to prove the point that some similar things happened in art here in New Zealand and the region, even if Sister Corita wasn’t well known.

Her life, born in 1918 and dying in 1986, is synchronous with that of Colin McCahon, who made a similar shift from very religious, to text-based and politically active work. So there is a Colin McCahon in Robert’s show. We had four McCahons when we showed it here in New Plymouth.

Interesting that they should be such religious people, but so different in their art. The abandon of Sister Corita and the austerity of McCahon…

Exactly. Maybe this is the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.