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Documentary Remembers Nun and Artist Corita Kent

November 07, 1989|SHAUNA SNOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She first became known as Sister Mary Corita of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. As head of the art department at the now-defunct Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, she became widely known for her "op-pop" serigraphs and her association with the progressive order.

Then, at age 50, after 32 years with the order, she left the sisterhood, re-entered the secular world as Corita Kent and continued with her artworks.

She touched viewers both as a nun and with her art--bright splashes of color accompanied by inspirational text--which include both the popular "Love" postage stamp and the landmark 150-foot-high rainbow painted on the side of a natural gas tank in Boston.

Now, three years after her death from cancer, producer Jeffrey Hayden wants to bring Kent to public attention, in an hourlong biographical documentary scheduled to air this spring on the Public Broadcasting Service.

"When Corita died a few years ago, I realized that she'd really led an exemplary life," said Hayden, a longtime collector of Kent's artworks who has spent the past year bringing "Primary Colors: The Story of Corita" to fruition.

"For me, she was a quintessential figure of the 1960s. She left the convent in the '60s and was a woman out there in the world. But she had been a nun until she was 50, and she had never learned to buy clothing, to cook for herself, to pay the rent. And she had to learn to do all these things at the age of 50. And that just seemed to be so representative of that period of turbulence in our lives in terms of the 1960s."

Eva Marie Saint, who narrates the documentary, also admired Kent. "She was so aware of the issues of the day," said Saint, who is producer Hayden's wife. "She lived through a period in history that covered the Vietnam War, and the flower children, and civil rights. Through her art, she addressed those problems; she didn't ignore them. She didn't get on a soap box but, in a very meaningful way, she addressed them."

In her will, Kent left a large collection of her works--including more than 900 signed and numbered prints and a large collection of sketches, studies and notes--to UCLA's Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts.

"For the last three years, I have been inventorying them and trying to prepare the materials in a way that they could be understood," said artist Mickey Myers, who was a student of Kent's at Immaculate Heart, later became a close friend and is now the artistic adviser to the Kent Estate.

The center's acting director, David Rodes, said he expects the center to receive the materials in a couple of weeks. Although he has no specific plans yet for the works, he "would like to mount a small show--because we don't have the space to show everything at once--and throw a big party for (Kent's) friends, because her life was such a celebration."

The first exhibition of the works, Rodes said, will probably coincide with the airing of "Primary Colors" on PBS.

"Corita was probably best known for doing work that was incredibly positive in its verbal tone, and incredibly bold and graphic in its aesthetic tone," said Myers, who is also co-producer of "Primary Colors."

"But the woman who did this was a woman who suffered a great deal, a woman who had a lot of dark nights of the soul. This woman was a combination of all these things that artists are. And that dichotomy is the core of our story: that the woman who gave hope to so many was so much of the time without it herself, and that this woman who spread so much love to so many, was so often alone."

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