WASHINGTON, DC — Sulpician Father Dominic Ciriaco finds inspiration for preaching in the vibrant silkscreen prints of artist Corita Kent, who created the art as a nun and later as a former nun.
And he hopes the seminarians he leads as rector of Theological College in Washington will also be inspired.
An exhibit of Kent’s work currently on display at the seminary explores “how the preacher can look to the art world for inspiration when preparing and preaching a homily.”
“His serigraphs became his pulpit as his works preached the gospel and inspired people to put their faith into practice,” Ciriaco said.
As Sister Mary Corita Kent, a member of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and as a former nun later in her life, the artist used passages from Scripture, psalms and messages about war and peace, love, poverty and social justice in his prints.
She was also inspired by the imagery of everyday products and companies, from Wonder Bread to Sunkist to General Mills.
Her works were particularly popular in the 1960s and 1970s. One of her designs best known to the general public is the “Love” stamp she created for the US Post Office in 1985.
Ciriaco mounted the exhibit, titled it “Beauty and the Priest: Preaching with the Work of Corita Kent.” It’s a play on “Beauty and the Beast,” as he explained in the comments opening the show on Feb. 3.
In the film he said: “Belle had to look beyond the Beast’s outside to see the beauty within and the Beast also experienced the love and acceptance of Belle, who then begun to change the Beast’s disposition about life and itself.The artist’s eye can help the preacher do the same with his preaching.
The creation of the exhibit also fulfills one of the final requirements he needs to complete his doctorate in ministry in preaching from Aquinas Theological Institute in St. Louis. He was to do a thesis project on preaching geared towards his ministry, which is seminary training.
In a Feb. 17 interview with Catholic News Service, Ciriaco said he first encountered Kent’s work through his religious order, the Society of Saint Sulpice.
Many of his works are in the provincial house of the order in Baltimore. Others are in the archives of St. Mary’s Seminary and University, run by the Sulpicians in Baltimore. The order also operates the Theological College, which is affiliated with the Catholic University of America.
“I immediately fell in love with his work,” said Ciriaco, who had help from Catholic University art students to organize the exhibition.
The artist, who died of cancer in 1986, bequeathed the pieces to the Sulpician priest who was her spiritual director, Father Robert Giguère. He left the artwork to order when he died.
Kent’s art took off as a nun. She joined the Immaculate Heart of Mary community when she was 18 years old. Born Frances Elizabeth Kent in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1918, she took Mary Corita as her religious name; “Corita” means “little heart”.
A self-taught artist, she received a bachelor’s degree from Immaculate Heart College, which was run by her community, and earned a master’s degree from the University of Southern California.
She taught college art classes, eventually becoming its art department chair in 1964.
Amid the Second Vatican Council and the changes it brought to the Church, her religious community enacted reforms that brought the sisters into conflict with Cardinal James F. McIntyre, then Archbishop of Los Angeles. The argument led many sisters to leave; those who remained created an ecumenical community which welcomed lay people.
Kent took a sabbatical in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1968 and decided to leave religious life. She moved to Boston and continued to create art.
By the time she went on sabbatical, Ciriaco said, she was exhausted, in part from the labor-intensive process of making screen prints.
Typically, only one or two color applications can be done per day with long drying times in between. She chose serigraphs, however, because every image she produced was original yet affordable for those who wanted to own her work.
Ciriaco said Kent was also stressed by Cardinal McIntyre’s criticism of her order and her work in particular.
“Vatican II was going too fast for him,” notes the priest.
One image the cardinal particularly hated and “was a scandal to him” – and a Ciriaco included in the exhibit – was an engraving by Kent comparing Mary to a “tomato”, which at the time was slang for an attractive woman. .
“What a tomato! She used a slang term to honor Mary, that Mary is the only one – the juiciest tomato of all,” the priest explained.
The Theological College exhibit includes display cases with photos of Kent at various times in his life, several of them working in his studio at Immaculate Heart College in full habit. In a few photos, students gather together as she demonstrates how to make an impression.
Items on display include a children’s picture book, “Make Meatballs Sing: The Life and Art of Corita Kent,” published in 2021 by Enchanted Lion, an independent publisher of children’s books in Brooklyn, New York.
Among the prints on display is that of St. Thomas More, which Ciriaco says has never been exhibited in public before.
The saint was a key adviser to King Henry VIII, but the king had him executed for standing his ground in his Catholic faith. Kent shows it next to his famous words: “I die a good servant of the king, and the first of God.” And he points a cross.
Kent was inspired by Andy Warhol’s famous “Campbell’s Soup Cans” to create prints of everyday objects, such as Wonder Bread. Other subjects include the Vietnam War as well as a tribute to St. John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy.
With the exhibition, Ciriaco said he hopes seminarians, priests “and everyone” will discover “the beauty of God in art and in the common things of daily life” and “connect them to the ‘gospel we preach and live’.
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More information about the exhibit can be found on the Theological College website at https://www.theologicalcollege.org/corita-kent-exhibit-feb-3-march-3-2022.