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Sister Corita Kent was a master printmaker and teacher, and her rules for artists and teachers are legendary - let’s break them down. Check out Google’s Science Journal: https://makingscience.withgoogle.com/science-journal. And go watch Say it Loud!: https://bit.ly/2CfPRt2.

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#art #arthistory #coritakent

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In a recent video, I made the error of attributing this list of rules for artists and teachers to John Cage, when it actually originated with Corita Kent, an amazing artist and also nun who taught for many years at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, was a marvelously innovative print-maker, and made one of the most popular postage stamps of all time.  In celebration of Women's History Month and as my penance for this mistake, we're gonna take a deeper dive into the life and work of the person responsible for the list and the collaborative environment from which it sprang.  

We're also going to review the ten rules, which are relevant whether you're an artist or teacher or really just a person with a pulse.  Kent developed the list while teaching at Immaculate Heart during the early to mid 1960s and this version was lettered and printed in 1967 by student David Mekelburg.  It starts with Rule 1: Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.  

The place Kent found and trusted for a while was the Immaculate Heart of Mary religious community, which was her home starting at the age of 18.  She was born Frances Elizabeth Kent and became Sister Mary Corita when she took her vows and joined the order.  The church and sisterhood provided structure to her life and support for her work and she blossomed in the collective environment of this progressive, as Catholics go, community.

Rule 2: General duties of a student: Pull everything out of your teacher.  Pull everything out of your fellow students.  Kent was an excellent student, completing a Bachelor's degree from Immaculate Heart in 1941 and a Master's in Art History from the University of Southern California in 1951.  She first learned (?~1:43) or silk screen printing from Maria Martinez, wife of arist Alfredo Ramos Martinez and then mostly on her own through experimentation.

Kent's mentor was Sister Magdalen Mary, the head of the art department, who encouraged her to exhibit her prints, which through the 50s were densely layered and largely figurative depictions of religious subjects.  

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Kent and Sister Mag, as she was called, traveled together to New York, Europe, and Egypt, to add to the school's folk art collection.  Folk art inspired her as did abstract expressionism, the work of Ben Shahn, and her local environment in LA.  Sister Carita drank up the offerings of her small liberal arts school and as she started teaching there, her educational philosophy was very much shaped by its vibrant and symbiotic relationship between students and teachers.

Kent later wrote that as a student in a class, "You aren't needed to be there to get grades or pass the course.  You are needed to help make the class.  So the structure is there for you and you are also the structure.  Your particular gifts help shape it," and that brings us to Rule 3: General duties of a teacher: pull everything out of your students.  Sister Carita was a very demanding teacher and even called herself a big old taskmaster.  She asked a lot of her students and they gave it.  She was extremely charismatic, which helped, and brought tremendous energy and enthusiasm to everything she did.  

Her assignments were unusual and elaborate, in one instance requiring the collection of 500 images only as step one, or in another asking students to make 20 puppets with a scenario crafted around them over a weekend.  You had to be neat and handle paper properly so that it didn't crease.  You had to respect technique and turn out a professional looking product, and you didn't need fancy tools to do it.  They often carved stamps from erasers, but if you weren't careful and sliced your finger, Sister Carita charged you 75 cents per cut.

All art majors were required to be English minors and they read the classics along with folk tales, poetry, contemporary literature, histories, oh, and also books about art.  Sister Mag asked her students to carry Janson's History of Art with them at all times, not to read necessarily, but to glance at or maybe just absorb something by its proximity and heft.  

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Words were very important to Kent and she used scripture, literature, poetry, and song lyrics as a springboard for her art.  By 1960, her work had become more abstract, focused more on color fields and shapes along with written psalms, and then in the early 60s, text took over almost completely and word became image in surprising and imaginative ways.  She saw Andy Warhol's groundbreaking 1982 "Soup Cans" show at Ferris Gallery.  That as well as the lou advertisements of Hollywood and post-World War II American abundance brought a whole new world of inspiration.

Kent took her students on field trips to the grocery store, where they observed signage, advertising, and collected discarded cardboard boxes for later use.  Students helped Kent create her own work for college art sales.  Her art often combined corporate logos and slogans with religious text, even referring to the Virgin Mary as "The Juiciest Tomato of Them All" in a 1964 print.

Kent was very much part of the wider pop art movement, whether or not it was regarded as such at the time.  With the help of her students, Kent produced grand events like the Mary's Day Procession that had traditionally been a state affair, but under her leadership became a jubilant celebration and happening, an occasion to adorn the school, community, and each other with signage and art.  

Rule 4: Consider everything an experiment.  Experimentation was at the core of Kent's work and teaching.  During class outings, Kent encouraged the use of what she called a finder, which was either an empty 35 milimeter slide or a rectangle cut out of a sturdy piece of paper.  It helped to frame views and focus your attention on that one area, allowing you to look at life as forms and colors and shadows without being distracted by content.

A camera lens does this pretty well, too, by the way, but can of course be its own distraction, but you could take a finder to a park, theater, market, parking lot, or any place where there's a lot to see. 

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The shapes you find could become paintings or the bits of isolated letters and words could turn into a screenprint.  When looking through a finder, Kent noticed that words on a flat surface looked dimensional when viewed from an angle.  She often captured these images through photography and then made stencils from them for her work.  A trick she liked to use in the classroom was to show two unrelated films on adjacent screens simultaneously, watching them repeatedly but changing the soundtrack each time.  All together, they became a new artwork every time, allowing you to find strange connections between the two.  She called this kind of strategic experimentation 'plork', combining the concepts of 'play' and 'work', the abstract and the concrete, joy and labor.  

For Kent, plork is the one responsible act necessary for human advancement and represents the ecstasy we feel when work and play are one.  Rule 5: Be self disciplined.  This means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them.  To be disciplined is to follow in a good way.  To be self disciplined is to follow in a better way.  

Kent claimed she found her real teacher after she finished school, and that was Charles Eames.  Both Charles and Ray Eames, his wife, were profoundly impactful in her life and she learned from them not just through visits and classes and phone calls, but also from absorbing the lessons of their work, which included films, buildings, furniture, and their approach of eradicating the distinctions between art and life.  The motto of the Immaculate Heart Art Department was squarely in line with this ethos.  "We have no art.  We do everything as well as we can."  

Many voices smart and wise were invited to the school to speak to students and teachers.  The Eames' as well as Buckminster Fuller, Saul Bass, Alfred Hitchcock, and of course, John Cage, who we'll get to in a moment, but there were many examples to follow.  Kent was extremely self disciplined and demanded the same of her students.  She instructed you to follow the rules exactly unless you come up with something better.  

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Much of her own art making took place during the three week break between semesters in August, a frenzy of activity that unfolded in the basement of the college or in a workshop across the street.  Art didn't happen when inspiration struck, but when she found time for it.  "Lessen the prestige and the expectations of art," she said, "and turn your endeavors into a good, solid, working job."  

Rule 6: Nothing is a mistake.  There's no win and no fail.  There's only make, and the closely related Rule 7: The only rule is work.  If you work, it will lead to something.  It's the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things, and Kent did do all the work, all of the time.  Along with teaching, she conducted workshops, exhibited her work, traveled to give lectures, fielded press, and eventually ran the art department.  She was an insomniac and made work whenever she could, creating large, unnumbered editions of her prints to align with her mission of reaching the widest range of people and keeping the price low.  Kent made greeting cards, posters, murals, and billboards and all of it came not just from her alone, but out of a truly collaborative environment.  She was often the face of the art department and signed the prints, but many helped her and inspired her and can be given credit for her renown.

Rule 8: Don't try to create and analyze at the same time.  They're different processes.  In Kent's understanding, "To analyze is to take apart; to create is to put together," and this is why they shouldn't happen simultaneously.  In her book Learning by Heart, written with Jan Stewart, Kent offers some guidelines for brainstorming, which I think are worth revisiting even if you think you know what it means.  

The rules are: record all ideas as they emerge, suspend all critical judgment until the end of the session.  Idea production is ten times greater when imagination isn't restricted by judicial attitudes.  Quantity is important.  The more ideas, the greater the likelihood of success.  

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Set a goal of how many ideas you want to come up with.  Make the numbers so large that you will have to stretch to achieve your goal.  Use and build on the ideas of others.  This is often a group activity, of course, but you can brainstorm alone, with the foremost goal of accepting all ideas and not censoring yourself.  Kent emphasizes that, "Letting yourself go free, playing around until something comes, is often very hard work."  That's plork for ya.

Rule 9: Be happy whenever you can manage it.  Enjoy yourself.  It's lighter than you think.  Kent's work was and is joyous, using bright colors and embracing all things new, she brought an incredible lightness to subject matter often considered serious, somber even, and fixed firmly in the past.  She brought her religious ideals into the present and emphasized the importance of celebration.  This didn't proclude critique, however, and Kent demonstrated her commitment to social justice by making work about racism and poverty, and in protest to the brutalities of the Vietnam War.  

Very much a controversial figure within the church, she and the free thinking sisters of Immaculate Heart were censured and restrained by their extremely conservative archbishop.  Kent left the order and sought dispensation for her vows in 1968, after taking a sabbatical to Cape Cod and really enjoying the break.  She said, "I taught for about 32 years, and then I really felt that I had finished with that.  I was very happy to drop it."  It was a brave act for someone who had been part of that community since she was 18, and she moved on to Boston, where she sought and found happiness and the freedom to work independently.

Rule 10: "We're breaking all the rules.  Even our own rules.  And how do we do that?  By leaving plenty of room for X quantities."  -John Cage.  Now, this one comes directly from Cage, who was a frequent source of wisdom for Kent and her students, who left plenty of room for X quantities in all of their classroom and studio experiments.  They broke the rules of art by looking to Los Angeles not as a morally corrupt wasteland, but as an ecstatic profusion of messages and material from which to make new work.  

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They defied the expectations of what constituted religious service, of what a nun should be.  Cage didn't originate the list, but he is largely responsible for popularizing it.  Cage's partner and choreographer Merce Cunningham kept a copy in the studio where his company rehearsed.  

The list ends with some extra hints: Always be around.  Come or go to everything.  Always go to classes.  Read anything you can get your hands on.  Look at movies carefully, often.  Save everything.  It might come in handy later.  She didn't mean you should become a hoarder, but rather a collector of things, tangible and intangible.  Walking down the street with open eyes.  She wanted us to see that anything can be source material and everything can have meaning.  She wanted you to be awaken enough to the world that you could make connections between the things that you see. 

Oh, and there's a perfect tack-on at the end, which is that there should be new rules next week.  After all, rules were important, but they were never final.  You were encouraged to be flexible and able to adjust to new conditions.  Pretty good advice for the classroom and for life in general.  

Check out Say It Loud, a new PBS Digital Studios series that celebrates black history, culture, and context.  Hosted by comedy writers Evelyn from the Internets and Azie Dungey, the show explores the complexity of black identity.  Go subscribe to Say It Loud.  Links in the description.  

Thanks to Google for supporting PBS Digital Studios.  Their mobile app, Science Journal lets you take notes and measure scientific phenomena such as light, sound, and motion, using your phone, tablet, or chromebook.  You can find activity ideas and additional information on their website at g.co/sciencejournal, or check the link in the description below.  

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