January 28, 2021

More Than a Pop Art Nun: Preserving the Studio of Sister Mary Corita Kent

An exterior photo of Corita's studio from the 1960s.

photo by: Corita Art Center

The art studio of Sister Mary Corita Kent as it appeared in the 1960s.

On December 17, 2020, the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission gathered virtually to discuss a one-story, concrete block building currently being used as a dry cleaner. The issue on the table: whether the structure—the former art studio of Sister Mary Corita Kent—retained enough of its historic integrity to be nominated as a city Historic-Cultural Monument. Although the studio had lost its original facade and interior over the years, it was still the last extant place where Sister Corita produced her renowned screenprinted art between 1962 and 1968 and became known nationwide as the “Pop Art Nun.”

Christina Morris, a senior field director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the lead on the National Trust's Where Women Made History campaign, wasn’t exactly optimistic. Los Angeles city staff had previously recommended that the nomination be rejected, on the basis that the current building shared little resemblance to the hub of activity and creativity it once was. And with a developer already contemplating demolition to expand a grocery store parking lot, securing Monument status was vital.

“Too often places that are modest visually function as vessels for enormous historical or cultural significance,” Morris says. “This is particularly true for sites associated with the history of women, people of color, and other underrepresented communities, where the importance tends to lie in what happened there, not the physical building itself.”

It soon became evident to all during the meeting’s public comment period that this was no ordinary concrete building. For nearly an hour, Corita’s students, colleagues, family members, and many advocates expressed their desire to see the building preserved. Lifelong art teachers cited Corita’s pioneering educational philosophy as a personal inspiration, and art historians observed her broad impact on the world of Pop Art.

“It’s not a pretty building,” says Nellie Scott, director of the nonprofit Corita Art Center. “It’s a utilitarian space. But that’s the beauty of what historians get to do, and it’s very Corita-like—that it’s so ordinary. She taught her students to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

Corita in her studio.

photo by: Corita Art Center

For her work, Corita was named one of nine Women of the Year by the Los Angeles Times in 1966.

Born in 1918 as Frances Elizabeth Kent, Corita became a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the age of 18. However, her interests lay in the artistic along with the spiritual. She had already experimented with serigraphy, or silkscreen painting, and taken classes at the Otis College of Art and Design. The accessibility of screenprinting appealed to her; it was important that the messages she conveyed through her work be understood by all.

The order of sisters encouraged Corita to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Southern California, where she gained a more formal education in serigraphy and the skills necessary to teach art at Immaculate Heart College beginning in 1947. By 1964, she became the head of the college’s art department and transformed her humble studio, located just across Franklin Avenue from the main campus, into a bustling center of invention.

As a teacher, Corita demanded much of her students. She frequently took students on field trips around Los Angeles to observe the world around them for hours, focusing on overlooked details. She earned a reputation for her intense assignments, asking for up to 100 drawings in a day. (Corita herself produced more than 700 screenprints in her career.)
wonderbread, by Corita.

photo by: Corita Art Center

wonderbread, 1964

While her early work contained spiritual overtones, the creation of wonderbread heralded a concerted step into the world of Pop Art. The 12 vibrant spots took inspiration from the Wonderbread company branding while also alluding to the 12 apostles in the Catholic tradition—a seamless melding of culture and religion.

As the decade progressed, Corita took an increased interest in confronting the most pressing cultural and social issues of her time. In the wake of 1965’s Watts Rebellion, which was ignited by police brutality during an arrest, she produced my people, commenting on the absence of nuance in media coverage and public opinion regarding the event. Her 1966 print new hope celebrated Richard and Mildred Loving, whose landmark Supreme Court case resulted in bans on interracial marriage being ruled unconstitutional.

“The work really speaks to a time that’s relevant to today,” says Scott. “It’s so filled with this message of love and hope and justice.”

The outspoken nature of Corita’s work eventually drew the ire of the Catholic Church. Cardinal McIntyre, then the archbishop of Los Angeles, demanded that the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters exclusively produce religious art. Seeking a fresh start, Corita moved to Boston in 1968 and later dispensed of her vows. She remained active as a secular artist and social justice advocate until her death in 1986.

mary does laugh, a screenprint by Corita.

photo by: Corita Art Center

mary does laugh, 1964. Corita found inspiration in the Market Basket supermarket located near her studio.

stop the bombing, by Corita.

photo by: Corita Art Center

stop the bombing, 1967. Anti-war and nuclear disarmament sentiments took center stage in this print by Corita.

With Corita gone, honoring her contributions became an important mission of the Immaculate Heart community. It established the Corita Art Center to both preserve her screenprints and continue her legacy of civic service by providing art education and other programming.

Saving Corita’s studio, which became a dry cleaner in 1983, presented a more difficult challenge. When Scott and the Corita Art Center discovered in August of 2020 that the building could be demolished, they quickly partnered with nonprofit Hollywood Heritage and Kathryn Wollan, an independent preservation consultant, to prepare the studio’s Historic-Cultural Monument nomination form. The National Trust and L.A. Conservancy further helped guide the preservation efforts.

A longtime resident of the neighborhood, Wollan frequented the building when it was used as a health food store in the 1970s, unaware of its connection to Corita. She knew that her preservation expertise would be essential if the Monument nomination was to succeed. “Corita's studio was threatened with demolition and if I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—advocate for a property that represents the importance of women in the history of art and education, then what am I doing?” she says.

IHC educators in Corita's studio.

photo by: Corita Art Center

Educators from Immaculate Heart College inside Corita's studio.

As the December meeting proved, Wollan was far from the only person with deep ties to Corita’s studio. And in the end, the chair of the Cultural Historic Commission announced that he had changed his mind—he would vote in support of the nomination. Corita still mattered, even if the places connected to her no longer appeared exactly the same.

Morris hopes that the decision augers well for other historic sites that have been altered significantly. Only 3 percent of Los Angeles’ Historic-Cultural Monuments are associated with women’s heritage; changing the notion of what makes a place historic will go a long way toward increasing that number. “It's wonderful that Sister Corita’s studio received the recognition and protection it deserves […] but of equal importance is the necessary and long-overdue conversation that it sparked,” she says.

For now, Corita’s champions are thrilled that her studio will endure, and the work of reviving its legacy as a community touchstone can now begin.

“At our first hearing the [Cultural Heritage] Commission asked, ‘If we have her art, isn’t that enough? Why do we need the studio?’” says Wollan. “We need it because it embodies—it makes tangible—her process and practice. Tangible heritage shows us not just what she created but where, when, why, and how.”

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Nicholas Som is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

nsom@savingplaces.org

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