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Sister Mary Corita Kent’s LA Studio Designated Historical Landmark

Corita Kent in her studio. Photo: Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community.

In a unanimous vote, the Los Angeles city council has granted landmark status to the former studio of Sister Mary Corita Kent, the renegade nun, Pop artist, activist, and educator whose bold and colorful silk screen prints detourned commercial imagery to preach ideas of social justice, peace, and love amid the political upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s.

The integrity of the modest concrete block structure, located at 5518 Franklin Avenue in Hollywood across the street from the Corita Art Center, had for years been maintained during its second life as a dry cleaner. The building was slated for demolition in 2019 when a developer wanted to bulldoze it to create additional parking spaces for a planned organic health food store. In response to the threat, the Corita Art Center launched the “Save Corita’s Studio” campaign with a collation of concerned citizens in August of last year, and submitted a rapid response application for landmark status to the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC).

Nee Frances Elizabeth Kent in 1918, Sister Mary Corita took the habit at age eighteen, joining the order of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles. She studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) and taught children on an Inuit Reservation in British Columbia before joining the art faculty at Immaculate Heart College, where she invited artists and luminaries including Alfred Hitchcock, Buckminster Fuller, and Charles and Ray Eames to lecture. Though Kent was already experimenting with serigraphy when she brought her students to visit Andy Warhol’s inaugural 1962 exhibition at Ferus Gallery, the encounter would prove pivotal to her artistic formation, inspiring her to remix appropriated logos and advertisments with biblical passages, fragments of modernist poetry, and messaging in solidarity with the anti-Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights movements. Kent’s activism progressively surfaced tensions between her leftwing politics and the Los Angeles archdiocese, which labeled her work sacrilegious. Kent left the nunhood as a result in 1968; she relocated to Boston and continued to make art under the name Corita Kent until her death from cancer in 1986.

“The joy in her work, its riotous color, was her gift to a good, grey world,” her friend, the radical Jesuit priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan wrote of her legacy: “It seemed as though in her art the juices of the world were running over, inundating the world, bursting the rotten wineskins of semblance, rote, and rot.”

Currently, just 3 percent of historic-cultural monuments in Los Angeles are associated with women’s heritage. Nationwide, a mere 8 percent are related to histories of people of color and women combined. “The Los Angeles City Council giving landmark status to Corita’s studio is one critical step in redressing this disparity,” Corita Art Center Director Nellie Scott said in a statement. “This work to uphold the legacies of women artists and cultural leaders is ongoing in Los Angeles and across the U.S. Corita reminds us that hope is not just optimism; hope is hard work. Hope means showing up every day for others. As we turn the corner from this pandemic, we will need spaces like the one at 5518 Franklin Avenue.”

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