LEARNING BY HEART
Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit
Corita Kent & Jan Steward
Allworth Press ($21.95)
CORITA: ON TEACHING AND CELEBRATION
Two Short Films
Corita Art Center gift shop ($25)
by Greg Bachar
Certain individuals and their work, when discovered for the first time, appear to be familiar, as in I think I’ve seen this before. One has this feeling looking at a lot of art and writing that came out of the 1960s, and Sister Corita Kent’s work is no exception: it features bright, psychedelic colors, images of war, messages of protest, and cut-and-pasted texts mixed with advertising slogans to form statements about social issues.
We ascribe this sense of familiarity with a dismissive hand wave, without realizing that just because something appears to be familiar to us doesn’t mean that it wasn’t new, strange, and even revolutionary at some other point in time, and that it still might be so now if we are just able to look at it without preconceived ideas. It’s in this way that the past becomes a great teacher, but only to the student who really wants to study, learn, and see.
Sister Corita Kent, like all true visionaries, was certainly about seeing. In Baylis Glascock’s 1967 documentary We Have No Art, there is a scene in which Sister Corita tells her students that while watching films it is a good idea not to blink—that if one blinks one will miss something important. Later in the film, she leads an audience through a “happening” of her own design: people in the audience are asked to turn around and place crepe paper hats on the people sitting behind them. They are then asked to inflate a clear plastic glove and hold it to the other person’s ear like they are telling them a secret while simultaneously reading an E. E. Cummings poem to their new neighbor and setting off poppers with confetti streams shooting out over the heads of the audience.
It is kind of a cliché 1960s moment, but then Sister Corita explains that each person in the scene is part of a larger whole; she was using the room and its occupants to paint a canvas whose totality only she was able to see from her vantage point at the podium. She describes the happenings that were part of the culture of the time as the breakdown between visual arts and theatre.
In a similar fashion, Sister Corita invokes a phrase from the Balinese, who don’t have a noun for the word “art” in their language: “We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.” She then explains that there is no distinction between art and “not art”; that the purpose of art is to give one an intense experience so that one might experience everything that is “not art” (life) more intensely; and that “a work of art is a small piece that you can digest which gives you a kind of idea of the richness that is in the whole.”
Sister Corita Kent is a small piece of the 1960s, whose life and work sheds light on the richness of the whole. Her book of teachings, Learning by Heart: Teaching to Free the Creative Spirit (cocreated with Jan Steward), and the overview of her life and work, Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita by Julie Ault, are refreshing reminders that “our best times are when working and playing are the same” and that creativity is “the art of connection making.”
Sister Corita said Learning by Heart was “meant to be a workbook.” Divided into sections that explore the terms each chapter is named after and providing the reader with lessons and exercises to put those terms into action, Corita lays the groundwork for the reader to explore a variety of aspects of looking, sources, structure, making connections, tools and techniques, work and play, and what might have been Corita’s most important theme: celebration.
This is a great book for artists, writers, teachers, and anyone who might be in search of a creative spark. Sister Corita states the obvious in ways one can apply to complex creative projects with an accumulation of phrases of wisdom supported by examples and exercises: “the goal is to get the greatest number of ideas”; “sources are starting points”; “the more tools and techniques you have, the broader will be your making vocabulary.” She playfully encourages one to “PLAY AT WORK: Take a few minutes during your lunch break to play with your office copy machine. You will immediately be able to see things in permutations that would otherwise take hours to imagine or achieve.”
Julie Ault’s book Come Alive! is a nuanced context for Sister Corita’s life, work, legacy, and a colorful oversize journey through the images she created in her lifetime. “With enthusiasm and a celebratory position on life, through her teaching and through her art,” Ault writes, “Corita opened the way for various forms of liberation in the many individuals and institutions she affected over time. Heightened awareness, analytic consciousness, aesthetic innovation, political activism, collaborative spirit, collective experience, visual pleasure, intellectual empowerment, and serious fun are just a few of those forms.”
Sister Corita said that the function of art is “to alert people to things they might have missed.” Her work, and these two books that capture the spirit and intent of her work, alert the reader to the existence of someone they might have missed until now, but whose lessons and words evoke a familiar and necessary presence.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009