Sister Mary Corita Kent
Corita Kent also known as Sister Mary Corita became known as the Andy Warhol of nuns. She became a pop art religious in 1960’s Los Angelos. A recent article on her work appeared in the August 2021 issue of Sojourners Magazine. It is a beautiful article rich in graphic design and images of her artwork. As author Cassidy Klein points out, while Warhol and other pop art greats poked fun at consumer culture and reworked popular imagery into art, Sister Mary Corita was perhaps the first to gain exposure for exploring the divine within Western consumer culture. She transformed advertising slogans and graphic design into opportunities to glimpse the divine. In answer to the question where is Jesus at work in the world, for Sister Mary Corita, the answer is everywhere. She challenged her students to break down boundaries between the worlds of art and non-art. For her these are the same world. As a result Sister Mary Corita was breaking down boundaries of who counts as an artist. In the wake of Vatican II, a wave of progressive reforms within the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960’s, unmatched until today, Corita Kent looked at breaking down barriers around church and popular art, around who could produce such art. Certainly she caught the attention of her archbishop who apparently was none to pleased to have a nun breaking boundaries and even garnering the attention of the art world and even Hollywood. People from all over would stop by to sit in on her art classes and listen to her teach and encourage people to create art.
Klein writes, “Kent saw creating hope as a collective responsibility, an act of radical neighbourly love that won’t let us give up.” This reminds me of the verse from our psalm, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in this word I hope.” The psalm connects this waiting and hope to song, another form of art. For Sister Mary Corita, her song comes through creating art in which the divine and everyday collide. In the face of injustice, we create art, we abide in the waiting, and find hope. For Sister Mary Corita, art is an act of resistance itself.
Consider how God works through us, praying through us as we create art. I know many of you already do this through fabrics, weaving, and other mediums. We’ve highlighted Lynn’s weaving here in the worship space, which is her response to the horrific revelations around residential schools in recent months. Art gives voice to love and hope in the midst of injustice.
“God’s not dead he’s bread.”
Sister Mary Corita’s was commissioned by the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 for the Washington March on Poverty at which Martin Luther King, Jr. was present. Her poster is a divided between red and blue rectangles with words in large white handwriting that read, “god’s not dead he’s bread.” In smaller handwriting off to the side reads the phrase, “they say the poor have it hard well the hardest things they have is us,” signed by Sister Mary Corita. The main slogan is appropriate for these “Bread Sundays.” “God’s not dead he’s bread,” is a summary of our theology around the table. We gather around the table for holy communion in faith, trusting that in fact God appears to us in the breaking of the bread, in the gathering for the meal. Martin Luther was careful not to get into the metaphysics of God’s mystical presence. We simply take it on faith that God is present and keep the focus on God’s active presence in gathering.
The second phrase on the poster is more elusive, “they say the poor have it hard well the hardest thing they have is us.” It gives way to a possible double meaning both that there are ways in which we are making life hard for people who are poor and also that there is strength in people to support people suffering from poverty.
It surprised me to read that a nun had been commissioned to make art for a political march on Washington. Rarely do we see these kinds of collaborations happening today in part because of a lack of trust between community groups leading the way and churches. It doesn’t help that every week there is a new revelation of how awful Christians have been to Indigenous children and other groups here in Canada. The only way through this is by not flinching, not shying away from the horrors of church history around us, and taking responsibility for as needed. We are continuing to build relationships and the people the church continues to harm are under on obligation whatsoever to accept an apology from Christians. If anything it’s amazing we are still in conversation with so many Indigenous folks and a testimony to their resilience and willingness to remain in conversation with us.
What kinds of creating are we being called into as church? NPR host Jesse Thorn likes to say the only different between Andy Warhol and someone else is that Andy Warhol writes down his ideas and then creates something. Most often folks have creative ideas but don’t write them down and don’t act on them. I think that is in line with Sister Mary Corita’s approach to art. Creating art as a form of keeping faith, open to absolutely everyone.
Think about how often we hear people say things like “I can’t sing,” “I can’t draw,” “I can’t write,” or whatever it might be. Very often these are simply projections of people’s fears saying this. Maybe we can’t all become professional at a creative craft, but we can all create. Children understand this most of all because at a young age they haven’t been told by others or more importantly by themselves that they can’t do something. They simply do it and are less bounded by rules and expectations. Adult sketching and art creating is often less free because we’ve gotten rusty. It’s like riding a bike after not being on two wheels for a long length of time. At first we might feel unsure but over time we find our stride, we feel more confident creating things.
Also we need to become comfortable with creating bad art. It’s perfectly fine for things not to work out as we imagined. That’s time same with learning to sing or play an instrument. We have to be willing to have imperfect results.
Chanting the Psalm
We also lift up people who have given their time and studies to the arts. Today we say good-bye to and thank Grady who is wrapping up his time as choral scholar. He and Abby just chanted this psalm moments ago. That too is a way in which voices ascend up to God with the plea, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” Perhaps at home you joined in the refrain, lending your voice to theirs.
So much of our worship is music. I think Karen said that recently in a conversation and so it’s important as we think about ways we’ll be inviting people back into the worship space this Fall in order to lend voices to psalms and in song.
We will be looking at how best to welcome you back into the space, as safely as possible, while also continuing livestreaming.
Music at the Olympics
Thinking about art as resilience I think about all the art surrounding the Olympics. Whether it’s the design of the team uniforms or music for various events. I appreciate having skate boarding present for the first time in the Olympics. It is a support that has whole genres of music surrounding it, thinking about the rise of punk music and skating. I noticed some of the competitors to keep their focus used AirPods connected to a phone playing a song list. Likely it helped them shut out other sounds and distractions and focus on their task at hand. That’s probably also how they practice at their home training facilities and I appreciated the continuity. They’re just going out for a skate session with a medal on the line. Would have been interesting to hear what their song list is.
While more sport than art, skateboarding is another way some people feel closer to the divine. A creative outlet that includes the everyday, including stairs, railings, benches.
Wrapping up, I leave you with the question: what is your pop art that intersects with the divine? What do you want to create or learn to do? Even if we do it badly? Perhaps it’s simply singing in-person in worship, which is something we all miss. Perhaps it’s returning to an art or instrument you miss. Perhaps it’s creating chalk art on the sidewalk. Although if you use the phrase, “god’s not dead he’s bread” be sure to attribute Sister Mary Corita.
Remember God’s grace is with you, granting you hope and love to abide through the coming weeks and months. Amen.