5 Questions with April Dammann, author of Corita Kent. Art and Soul. The Biography

by Jessica on April 24, 2015

Happy Friday, friends!! I hope you’re gearing up for a relaxing and fun weekend ahead.
We have an event coming up on Monday 4/27 that is already shaping up to be a really special evening.

April Dammann is the author of a new biography about Corita Kent that is being put out by one of our favorite local publishers, Angel City Press. Some of you reading this may know exactly who Corita Kent is and some of you may have no idea which is just one of the many reasons why this biography is so important in today’s world.

April Dammann answered 5 questions for us about the importance of this biography and the impact that Corita Kent still has on the art community today. Check out her answers and we hope to see you Monday evening at 7pm!


5 Questions with April Dammann

There really hasn’t been much in the way of books/biographies featuring Corita Kent. Why is a project like this so important?
This is the first biography of Corita Kent, and most importantly, the first independent biography. Corita was an independent soul, so I think she would appreciate that her biography was written by someone who could be totally objective about her life and her art. The biography is very timely because only in the last few weeks has the Vatican backed down in its stance against the women religious they have called “radical nuns” in America. Fifty years ago Corita and her sisters in the Immaculate Heart of Mary order in Los Angeles were castigated for being too radical, too “uppity.”

And on the art front, this biography and the exhibition of her work that is coming to Pasadena in June are important because Sister Mary Corita, as she was first known, was working contemporaneously with men in the modernist and pop art worlds, but it was the men who were getting all the attention. It is finally time that a woman of her impact on the art world gets fully recognized and studied.

I like to remind people that Andy Warhol and Sister Mary Corita were serigraphers working at the same time, looking at the same world, often in much the same way. One became ultra famous, ultra rich, ultra cool, and the other became a symbol of love and peace, not famous, not rich, but artful and soulful. And yet both Warhol and Corita influenced the art world tremendously. I could argue that Corita’s influence has been more long lasting than his, actually. Not her star power, but her influence. Recognition for female artists is still a problem today, so I feel this recognition for Corita is extremely important, and long, long overdue. Our former LA City Councilman Joel Wachs is now the president of the Andy Warhol Foundation agrees. He wrote the Foreword to this biography.

Describe the process of initial idea to actual publishing of the book. How did it go from just a great idea to the actual physical book that it is now?
The first biography I wrote was about Earl Stendahl, a pioneer gallerist in the art world in Los Angeles. I love researching artists’ lives, so for my second book I wanted to write about a woman. I had grown up in Los Angeles at the very time that Corita was making her art, not far from my own home. At the time that I was determining who my next subject should be, Corita was in the news for some minor local shows and a few in other states. I took a trip to Paris and saw examples of Corita’s work at the Biblioteque Nationale and I was hooked. Here was an America female artist–from Los Angeles–whose work was getting more attention in France than here. As an artist and as a woman religious, Corita was undervalued and underexposed for years. She seemed to be my perfect choice. I took my idea to Angel City Press and the rest is between the covers of Corita Kent. Art and Soul. The Biography.

Angel City Press had published your book The Exhibitionist. How and when did you team up with them for this book?
Serendipitously, when I proposed the idea to my editor at Angel City Press, she was ecstatic–she had been eager for a book about Corita. Then we heard about the show at the Tang Museum opening on the East Coast, a show that would be traveling and destined for its final stop here in Pasadena. Shall we call it a no-brainer? There was no biography, there needed to be one, and here were a writer and an editor eager to share the story. I didn’t have to do a big sales pitch. My editor knew my passion, I knew hers, and we sealed the deal.

Did you run into any challenges along the way in terms of getting the book released? If so, how were those challenges worked around?
You ask about challenges to do this biography. There were many. First of all, I was very fortunate that the Corita Art Center at Immaculate Heart High School exists. Because it is an archive that is open to the public, its director gave me access to its holdings. It was the perfect place to start–it is a fabulous archive. But when I asked for further cooperation–interviews with the few living sisters in the Immaculate Heart Community who knew Corita, access to Corita’s artwork to publish in the book, snapshots, etc.–the door closed. In their zeal to protect Corita’s story from being told by anyone outside their community, I was not welcomed.

But this turned out to be its own blessing. I interviewed dozens of people who knew Corita, either sisters of the Immaculate Heart who were eager to share their stories, students who had learned from her, people who photographed her, institutions who published her posters and books. So many people, and each joyously eager to participate. I was able to get a story that I would have never had if I had not been an independent biographer writing a no-holds barred biography.

At the same time, I am so grateful to the Corita Art Center and the Immaculate Heart Community for caring for the legacy of Corita Kent—they have done an amazing job of making sure that her artwork is preserved for future generations to see. Corita bequeathed her own, personal collection of her artwork to the Grunwald Center for Graphic Arts at the Hammer Museum in Westwood—so some of the very rare pieces are there. Archivists at large institutions across the country were very helpful and eager to help me complete the biography.

If Corita was still with us today what impact do you think her art and her activism would have on the community and on the younger generation that may not know who she is?
You ask how Corita would impact us today if she were still with us. Having lived with Corita for the last many years as her biographer, it is hard to feel as if she is NOT with us. Our world today is much like the world Corita lived in and then left. There were wars. There were gross social injustices. There were women fighting for equality. But Corita never woman-ed a picket line (“I left that to braver souls,“she said), instead she spoke with her art. She never let herself be stifled, nor muffled. Her vibrant colors and powerful fonts often shouted her message. She would marvel today at Sister Simone Campbell who spoke at the convention nominating our current President. She would create art in support of the Nuns on the Bus who fight for social justice for all people of all color, gender, and socio-economic class.

Corita inspired generations of women and men alike, and now that her life is being explored, my hope is that she will inspire more generations.

To find out more about April Dammann please visit her website here.