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  • Matt Burke

The Pop Art Nun: Finding art in the mundane

At Almighty we have always been drawn to the simplicity, boldness and colour of pop art. Much of the work in our portfolio nods to it. So we were surprised we had not heard of the phenomenon that is Sister Corita Kay Kent. Until now. We recently went along to the UK’s biggest ever show of work by this joyful (and somewhat controversial) American pop artist, social activist and nun, currently showing at The House of Illustration in King’s Cross, London.

As branding specialists, we are always on the hunt for inspiration to shape the work we do for our clients and we feel we have stumbled across a real gem with this astonishing body of work. “Look at this; and then look again, and see anew.” These were the instructions Kent allegedly gave her students in a car wash in Los Angeles. She taught art at the city’s Immaculate Heart School from 1947 to 1968 and her philosophy was to find inspiration in the everyday. She was interested in the concept of ‘illumination’ - both in terms of how she was inspired by her religious beliefs but also in the literal sense, of using words and illustration to literally ‘throw light on’ an idea.

Unlike some pop artists who used the trappings of materialism to point out its flaws, Kent believed that anything ‘good’ had a religious quality. From street hoardings to scripture, she turned phrases and graphic patterns into striking prints. And boy are they striking. Indeed, Kent's subversive screen prints revolutionised typographic design in the 60s. A contemporary of Andy Warhol, admired by Charles and Ray Eames, John Cage and Saul Bass, Corita's radical pop art challenged the Roman Catholic Church and offered a bold new perspective on misogyny, racism and war.

She would use text from the Bible and juxtapose it with everyday urban life. Later, she expanded her repertoire to include slogans from protest movements, song lyrics, modernist poetry (she was a big fan of ee cummings) and promotional signage, capturing the clamour and commercialism of LA’s post-WWII financial boom. Distorted hand-drawn and stencilled typography in bright, poppy colours became the defining elements of her work. Her spirit and anarchy is inspiring, but what we love the most about her style is the way she uses cropping to focus on mundane life around you and, in the process, transforms it into art. That is ultimately what art does: it shows you a glimpse of the bigger picture, it reveals beauty in the most unlikely of places and brings joy to the viewer. Kent found that beauty in man-made, urban landscapes, and for that she should be celebrated.

Kent’s background in the church gave her a unique perspective as an artist. In her book Learning By Heart: Teachings To Free The Creative Spirit, she claims that everybody can be an artist, that we all have a creative spark. That magnanimity really resonates with us, as a branding studio. Our mission at Almighty is to find beauty in everything that we do, to open up the boundaries and make good design part of everyday life. Who would have thought a nun would show us the way?

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