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We Care a Lot: Corita Kent at Goucher College

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In 2015, I drove 4.5 hours to Pittsburgh to sleep on a friend’s couch so I could catch Someday is Now, Corita Kent’s show at the Warhol Museum. As I documented for this magazine, I was Pittsburgh-curious and had a grand time (although I didn’t think much of their “mission-style” burritos) dashing around to the major art spaces and spending three hours with Kent’s first survey show in over thirty years.

That show was everything I wanted it to be: a vibrant color bomb, with completely packed walls featuring Kent’s signature, text-heavy, advertisement-inspired screenprints (or serigraphs) hanging salon-style. 

Alex Ebstein’s last show as Director of Exhibitions and Curator for Goucher College (she started her new position as the Director of the Ruby grants for the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation at the beginning of this month), We Care: Works by Corita Kent includes prints from some of the same editions I saw in Pittsburgh, but it looks and feels entirely different. 

In the installation in Silber Gallery, a space with notably high ceilings for a college exhibition space, Ebstein has left room for viewers to breathe and given them space to contemplate the legacy of the protest art created by possibly the most famous American Catholic nun-turned-artist-educator. The show consists of seventeen serigraphs on loan to Goucher from the U.S. Province of the Society of St. Sulpice, the Baltimore seminary that has a large collection of Kent’s work.

 

Culling the exhibition down to fewer than twenty pieces was a challenge for Ebstein, who elected to focus exclusively on works Kent made between 1964 and 1967, a period that overlapped with the Vietnam War and the height of the mid-century Civil Rights protest movements in the United States. Kent’s experimental, text-based designs play with font and color, showcasing someone at the height of their powers photographing, tracing, projecting, and twisting her way to printed perfection that looks effortless.

Kent’s primary influence was the world of advertising, and that aesthetic bleeds through the majority white-background graphic works on display at Goucher, forcing viewers to question their origin and purpose. As an educator, Kent practiced what she preached, a fact evident when reviewing works from the short time span highlighted in We Care. Kent’s ability to try ideas in multiple ways, to riff on herself with openness, might also speak to the life she enjoyed, somewhat removed from the pressures of the art world machine.

 

Born in 1918 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Frances Elizabeth Kent entered the religious order Immaculate Heart of Mary when she was 18. In 1951, while teaching in the art department of Immaculate Heart College, she completed her master’s of art at the University of Southern California, where she first studied screen printing. Kent continued to teach at Immaculate Heart College while her art career gained traction. In the three-year period where she made the work on view at Goucher, she was asked to create a banner for the Vatican Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, was named one of nine prominent women by the Los Angeles Times, and appeared on the cover of the Christmas issue of Newsweek. Suffice it to say that although she might not be a household name today, in her lifetime, Kent was an extremely well-known and successful artist, full stop.

To accompany the gallery of Kent’s work, Ebstein collaborated with Debbie Harner of Goucher College’s Special Collections department to create an exhibition on the Catonsville Nine, a Catholic protest group that in 1968 burned draft cards to protest the Vietnam War. Rounding out the current exhibitions, Life During Wartime is Baltimore-based printmaker R.L. Tillman’s exhibition in Rosenberg Gallery, where the artist plays with some of the same ideas as Kent, isolating a few works of text to speak to the history of propaganda and graphic design.

I visited Ebstein and Harner at Goucher to learn more about their collaboration on the Kent exhibition. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

***

 

Suzy Kopf: This show has been a multi-year project you worked on with a lot of people. What was your original concept for the show and how did you bring all your collaborators on board?

Alex Ebstein: This was a show that I had in mind before beginning my role at Goucher in 2018. I first saw this collection in 2010, when a friend of mine who knew about it brought me and four other people to go see the collection with her. She made the appointment and then she mom’d us into her car and brought us to the place.

That’s where I saw the work and learned about it for the first time. It changed my life. I remember the drawers opening with these insanely beautiful neon images and the freedom to flip through them with the collection steward, Tricia Pyne [who became a collaborator on this show]. 

When I started researching Kent on my own, I realized that there was even more to her and that this was about her love of being both a nun and part of a progressive religious community, but also an art teacher. I felt like I identified with her, not the nun part, but being part of a progressive community and working with art felt very similar to what I was doing in Baltimore to address things creatively. I just fell in love with her work.

When I was interviewed for this job, they asked, What would your dream show be? I told the interviewers, there’s this beautiful collection of work that’s never been shown in Baltimore. And I think this is the place for it—a school where students are learning the basics of printmaking, and they’re also learning about content in different ways from an unexpected place. [Kent’s biography] teaches us to not judge a book by its cover. I started talking to Tricia in 2018, right when I started working here. I started doing visits to see the work again and picking what to include. We agreed on a Fall 2020 date for the show originally.

[In the time the show was delayed due to COVID,] the Goucher collection was given the Tom Lewis print I included in the show. I realized what it was and then started to look into his work and found Morgan Dowty’s article, so I asked her to write about it for the show. [That connection] created the opportunity to work with Debbie Harner in Special Collections, which is how this idea expanded to be a multi-floor, multi-gallery show.

[Ed. Note: To complement the Kent show, Ebstein invited R.L. Tillman to create a text-based body of work.] [Tillman’s] concept is clever without it falling flat. It approaches the subject and lets it land on its own. The installation of the show in Rosenberg Gallery is meant to be more organic than Kent’s in Silber Gallery. Tillman decided to crumple one print from each series by soaking them and letting them dry differently, which alludes to what happens when posters are left out in the street. It’s an interesting gesture to talk about commerce and finance in a nonprofit space that has to confront the value of itself all the time.

 

How did so much of Kent’s work get to Baltimore, a city where she never lived or had a solo show in her lifetime?

AE: She made a lot of prints. There isn’t even a count for each of the editions. She would send work to religious mentors, and she had a religious mentor here, Rev. Robert Giguere, who was part of the seminary in Roland Park. When she died, she deaccessed a big selection of her work to them. It included everything that she made while part of the church, which is some of the more abstract and religious imagery from when she was first learning how to screenprint in undergrad and grad school. There were some early pieces I wanted to see from the late ’50s because I had never seen one of the more abstract ones in person. But some of the priests have them in their offices so I couldn’t see them.

Can you speak more about how you collaborated to draw connections between Corita Kent’s screen prints and the Catonsville Nine? Is the downstairs installation from the collection of the U.S. Province of the Society of St. Sulpice, and upstairs from Goucher’s Special Collections?

Debbie Harner: Exactly. The exhibit on the fourth floor is a historical narrative of the Catonsville Nine, who were nine Catholics who in 1968 created homemade napalm and burned draft cards. Herman Heyn, who was part of the Baltimore Defense Committee, which was the nonprofit that raised the funds for the defense of the Catonsville Nine, donated everything he kept [from the protest act and proceeding trial] so we have newspapers and photographs from his collection. When Alex told me about the Corita show, I knew we could support it with this story because it was something that was going on at the same time.

Goucher has had activism and protest as a part of their history since the 1890s. Women were debating suffrage; we have records of it from the 1890s. So we wanted to continue that tradition, to say this is what people were doing. Quite a few Goucher community members were protesting in the 1960s—one Goucher professor actually resigned to work in the peace movement. Daniel Berrigan, one of the priests who was arrested as part of the Catonsville Nine, gave a poetry reading here at Goucher the night before he was sentenced and it’s in the yearbook. So we have the yearbook open for three pages as part of the exhibit. We are also the official repository for the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom. There’s a great opportunity for anyone to do research with our other documents and collections, we have a lot for a small college!

 

With the library’s show about the Catonsville Nine, what are you hoping visitors learn from the layout?

DH: There’s a lot of text [for this exhibit, so it can be self-guided]. In addition to the display case of collection items, we had Linus Berggren, a Goucher student who won the Sally Barnes Fellowship last spring, create an interactive piece as part of the exhibit, which is something we’ve never done before. Participants can use the provided Post-its to respond to the prompt: How do they protest, how do they care? We have several fellowships in which students can apply to do research using our collections and we’ll pay them.

Looking at the history of Goucher, the students were incredibly active. I was really surprised that several of the members of the Chicago Seven wrote articles for the Goucher Weekly about protests in the 1960s. Tom Hayden came here and gave a speech.

Do you think Kent is such an inspiring figure for scholars and artists because she was an artist-educator herself? She really considered teaching in ways that were new for her time, like with her 10 rules, which are open-ended prompts for the creative process.

AE: Yes, it’s definitely the combination. I was interested in the way she was generous with her students with her own practice. Part of the way she taught her students was having a unique vision of how to engage with the world around you and what it means to you, and then how to radiate that out into being more civically engaged. I think that’s a really beautiful way to teach art and elevate the importance of art as an area of study.

DH: That was definitely something that drew me to her. I’m hoping students take away from it just how much protest can matter. I’m a historian looking at the different methods of activism and protest. Upstairs we’re showing violence, breaking and entering, essentially removing documents, and burning them with homemade napalm made from ivory soap—that was baby soap the protestors selected because babies were burning in Vietnam.

The power behind that is not necessarily known today, but to see that Kent’s images on the wall look cheerful when you walk by, [that draws people in]. It’s another way of protesting, by using something a little bit more calming and the other way is much more violent. Both are representative of what was happening in the 1960s.

 

When you were curating the show, how did you select and arrange from the large holdings you could pick from?

AE: I found it to be a stressful process because I wanted everything and was thinking about how I could hang work all the way up to the ceiling. But Tricia is disciplined and has an amazing spatial awareness of the work from working with it for so long. She worked with me to create a cohesive show and rein in the number of works. I wanted to have a mix of things that were both more overtly political messages and then ones that have a slower read and are more about creating a sense of the popular culture of LA in the ’60s that become key to reading some of the more political ones.

I arranged them in this way because I wanted people to be able to see Power Up from walking into the room. I knew I wanted the reading space to not interrupt the sight lines, but I wanted it to feel like it was a part of the space. I brought Qwrk in because I wanted to create a space for viewers to spend time with Corita’s work and her story. I felt like that needed to be part of people’s experience, that they were able to sit and to take it in slowly and find out more at their own pace if they wanted to. People really do use the reading space.

I worked with my former student, Lolo Gem, on the wall paintings. New Standard Frames made all the temporary frames for the show. The furniture came in last, but I knew that it existed, and I specifically asked Qwrk for these chairs that relate to the ’60s aesthetic.

There are a million shows I could have curated from the collection, but a lot of what I selected deals with hunger. Food insecurity work is a big extracurricular at Goucher so I feel this is a topic that this community cares about and relates to.

 

I’ve seen a lot of shows that you’ve curated, Alex; could you contextualize this show in the run of shows that you’ve put together here at Goucher?

AE: This was outside of the norm—this is working with an artist who is deceased, with a collection that is borrowed, that has different insurance concerns, handling, and presentation. And this show needs a historical context that is on me and my collaborators to explain. Typically, working with contemporary artists, you get to work with their words to solidify or flesh out the theme. So this was a challenge, but it also was one that I had a long window of time to work on. There were moments where I thought it might not happen, but it was a slow-burning project, which was important to me.

This was a challenge for myself outside of my areas of comfort. I had to work with artist rights on reproducing images that the Corita estate owns the rights to. I reached out to the Corita Center to get high-res images and then also had to get permission to document the ones that they didn’t provide images of. There are lots of eyes on this because this artist is very important to a lot of people.

A connection I make, and I’m curious if you share, is that Kent was one of the first artists in the ’60s to take advertising and then flip it and use it for the protest movement. 

AE: I think that there was definitely a special attention to the details in our world being able to carry multiple messages. [She] used recognizable fonts to bring people in, to serve them a different message, to drive home things that were important to her. I had never seen work like this when I saw this for the first time. I just remember that feeling of being completely knocked sideways and having to know more. I hope people feel that way when they see the show. 

 

*****

More information: WE CARE: WORKS BY CORITA KENT at Goucher College’s Silber Gallery is on view from September 10 to December 16, 2022.

R.L. Tillman’s Life During Wartime is on view in the Rosenberg Gallery through February 3, 2023.

Photos courtesy of Goucher College, by Vivian Doering

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