Celebrating Corita Day (Ep. 293)

November 20th is Corita Day, a celebration of the art and life of Corita Kent, also known as Sister Mary Corita. As part of this celebration, Tim welcomes on Nellie Scott, director of the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles. Listen as they discuss Corita’s art and life, how Nellie works to preserve Corita’s legacy and amplify her message, and how teachers can introduce Corita to their students. Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

I want to talk today about Sister Mary Corita, also known as Corita Kent, who was a nun and an artist and a teacher and an activist. And she is someone who I think we overlook far too quickly when we are talking about Pop art and art history. She inspired so many artists and so many teachers and she had her 10 rules for learning in life, all of which has brought her great renown. If you’re not familiar with her work, go look it up. If you don’t know it offhand, you may recognize it when you see it. But check it out and familiarize yourself before you listen to the conversation today. Because that will help the conversation mean so much more to you. So just go ahead and hit pause, use the links we have in the show notes to do some quick research about her work, about her life, about whatever interests you, whatever you may need to know. And we will still be here when you come back and like I said, that will make listening to the conversation today much more meaningful.

All right. Question is, why are we talking about Corita today? Well, because Nellie Scott is going to be my guest. And Nellie is the Director of The Corita Art Center. And The Corita Art Center is in Los Angeles and it exists to preserve the legacy of Corita Kent’s artwork and her teachings and her passion for social justice. And Nellie is going to talk to me today about her role as director and also about Corita’s life and work.

Now, I’m also excited that this episode will air the week of Corita Day. So November 20th is Corita Day, a celebration of Corita’s life and work and legacy. And it is a day that is recognized by Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. And it is the perfect opportunity for you wherever you may be, to bring up Corita with your students. And so we’ll talk about all of the ways you can do that with Nellie, who I think is ready to go, so let me bring her on right now. All right. And Nellie Scott is joining me now. Nellie, how are you?

Nellie: Hi, how are you? I’m doing pretty good this morning.

Tim: Awesome. I am really looking forward to talking to you, I feel like you have a super cool job. I think it’s a lot of great stuff that I think art teachers will really enjoy hearing about. So to get started though, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself? How you got started in art, what drew you to working at the museum?

Nellie: Yeah, absolutely. Well, so my name is Nellie Scott and I am the Director of the Corita Art Center here in Hollywood. We are located right off of the corner of Western and Franklin near Griffith Park. And it is one of the highlights of my job, is to speak about Corita and to be her champion and I feel so lucky to do so. And my background is in art history and social practice, specifically through an indigenous lens and always have found myself pointing towards arts education as a foundation to that work and thinking of how do we make art as accessible as possible to people of all ages. So of course I found my way to Corita, who shows us something new every day and really frankly still teaches us through her work and her words.

Tim: Yeah, that’s awesome. And I do want to ask you a little bit later about the whole accessibility thing and how you make things available for our teachers. I think that’s really cool with everything that you’ve been doing. But before we get to that, I wanted to ask, just from your perspective, just looking at the museum, everything you do there, why is it so important for you to preserve Corita’s legacy?

Nellie: Well, I think it’s kind of fundamental to the type of work that we do in our mission while we are centered around one singular person and their estate and their pedagogy. We have the great fortune of thinking through the ethos that she left us as well, which is always centered around love hope and justice. And so thinking through that it really sometimes very challenging but also really rewarding and thinking, how do you take what has been left to us and bring that to the next generation and so we do that in many different levels. And most recently I think, we were able to really underline the importance of honoring the work of women and women’s heritage with Corita’s Studio and receiving historical designation for the place of an educator, a place of a woman artist.

Her work has value and so I think that is something that we, again really underlined through that journey of this larger gap in equity that we are seeing. And further what helped shape that conversation, was the incredible power of a good educator and the ripple effect that they leave in the world, right? So we have her students that we get to talk to every day, we have her students, students and you really see that at magic. And so when we think about what’s important in preserving the legacy, I think that’s it, that’s the good stuff. Because when you hear Corita in any interviews or read interviews of her, she always describes herself as an educator first. And I think that for us really becomes our north star and mission.

Tim: That hits home for me, I think that’s a really, really great way to think about things. And like you said, a good way to guide what you’re doing. Now, before the interview part here, I talked a little bit about Sister Corita’s work, but can you tell us a little bit more about the museum itself? Maybe a little bit more about the mission you just talked about but also just what would people be able to see there and what kind of programs, what opportunities do you offer for people through the museum?

Nellie: Right. Well, that’s a great question and a museum might be a little stretch, we consider ourselves like a research center first and foremost.

Tim: Fair to know. Fair enough.

Nellie: But we are looking to address that, because I do think that the more that we, again, coming back to that accessibility of that is at the fundamental root of Corita, of making sure it’s as available to everybody as possible. So you mentioned her name and so going back in history a little bit. She was known as Sister Mary Corita until 1968, where she sought dispensation from her vows and continued on as a secular artist in Boston. When she died in 1986, she left some things to The Grunwald Collection, which is now part of the Hammer and then some of her papers to Harvard. But essentially everything else came to the Immaculate Heart Community.

So the women that she was once in habit with had created a nonprofit themselves. So again, she left this collection to them to keep championing that legacy. A great part of our job is working with them as a program of their good work. And so of that, that’s about 30,000 artworks ephemera. We have a very robust photography collection, slide collection of her photographs, which was part of her process. And so we’re actually very much looking at that right now to think through that accessibility term, of how do we digitize these to make it a more robust research tool for not only enthusiasts but also other educators.

Tim: That seems like it would be quite the undertaking to try and get through all of that, so I don’t envy you there. I did want to ask though, I know for so many museums, art centers, galleries, COVID has been incredibly difficult, the past couple of years have been incredibly difficult. But I know that you pivoted during the shutdown and created just so many educational opportunities. I was really impressed by the learning by heart video resources in particular that you put together. Can you talk about, how all of that came together and how you created those?

Nellie: Yes. Speaking to the digitization efforts and that’s part of this larger conversation of making resources available. We’re so fortunate, we have an amazing Curator and Collections Manager, Olivian Cha who’s really leading that. COVID hit and I think everybody was just turned sideways and we were in the good fortune of having an existing grant that we said, “Okay, how do we turn this on its side and look at this from a different point of view?” And we were able to create a really robust, as you said, video series and educational materials. But a lot of that was activated because we are part of a larger nonprofit network. So in speaking to our partners, it felt a very urgent immediately, how do we get resources into the hands of children who are greatly affected by this? And I’m sure your listeners know this very much firsthand.

Tim: For sure, for sure.

Nellie: But what’s at the heart of this and so some of the materials were just made as fast as we possibly could get them out. They would require nothing more than a pencil, so that they could be printed at food distribution sites. We really activated over 80 nonprofit partners across the U.S. to get these resources out. And again, going back to that amazing ripple effect of artist educators of when you support them, you can see the magic of how that affects so many more lives. And so part of our mission at the Corita Art Center, is really focused on art educators. And so that’s what we did, we went to a lot different, amazing individuals and said, “Hey, do you want to help us share this?”

We of course had this wonderful resource in learning by heart, which was created with Jan Stewart as well as Corita. And I have to share it, I’ve never seen one of those books, not well worn and well loved, it’s always the spine is holding together. And so we really are continuing along that path, of how do we keep supporting artist educators during this really tough time to create more materials focusing on her pedagogy but also those same ethos, of how are we talking about these issues? And when you look at her work, it’s so rich to speaking to what we’re going through right now. And I have to say, learning by heart, I’m pretty sure she had to have written that in the pandemic, because some of those exercises they were very centric to this idea of slow looking.

How do you take in a one square inch by one square inch, through a view finder, which is a tool that she used to see the larger whole. What is your individual responsibility, again to this greater whole and exercises that don’t require a lot of materials. So they felt very pandemic friendly.

Tim: You’re right. Right.

Nellie: And then further as we were speaking to some of our nonprofit partners here locally, we wanted to address different types of populations, different age groups, specifically looking at our houseless neighbors. And so we worked very closely with mental health professionals in developing what we call the plork book. Which is a term that’s often used plork, which is play and work. And as a mental health prompt and as a journal for creativity and so we’ve been able to continue that, right? We have a buy one, give one now through our shop. And that’s really at the heart of what makes all of our hearts skip a beat, is when you see all of those layers come together and be able to distribute not only supplies but materials. So those are on our website, all free to download all of those curriculum. And I will say we are working on a more robust teacher resource offering to partner with those. And we’re still going. Corita 101, this is just the start.

Tim: That’s awesome. Well, and I’ll just say for everybody listening, I know Nellie said they’re working on stuff but what’s there already is actually really incredible. There are a lot of great resources on the website, so we’ll make sure we link to that. So if you are interested in listening to this and seeing what they have to offer, you can definitely find that pretty easily. And then I guess I wanted to ask you Nellie a little bit more about Corita’s work and I guess, you talked earlier about how it just speaks to the moment still. I guess my question for you, is why do you think her work resonates so many years later? And why are kids able today to see what she created and then just immediately connect with our work?

Nellie: I think this speaks to, or you spoke to it so beautifully of why people connect to and I think with Corita’s work, you don’t need an invitation to participate. And so that’s a big part of the work that we do, in looking at not just the end product which is the artwork but it’s also about the process, which you see when you talk to her students. When they’re talking about these long walks that they would take throughout Hollywood to look for source materials, this act of against the looking and so I think what’s so interesting about her work from a art historical perspective, is she is greatly informed by the 1960s and these various movements. But also, Vatican II was happening at that time. We have closely aligned the Pop art movement and this idea of how do you take the every day and find gratitude in a new way?

And so she’s pulling from common objects that people are very familiar with, packaging from food sources or billboards or Beatles lyrics. This kind of weaving in of message, that again you don’t need an invitation to participate. And with her, working primarily in creating serigraphs or silk screen prints, it’s a very democratic medium, right? Not a lot of people have marble or another type of source material at home, but a paper it’s something very fundamentally accessible. And I think that it just adds another layer to her work and her message.

We recently exhibited her heroes and sheroes series at Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York. And it was the first time that all 29 works from that series were presented together in New York. And it was really spectacular to see them side by side and to walk through, these works that really address issues that were happening in the 60s and felt very relevant to today and the same conversations that we’re having 50 years later. But there’s a level of hope in them. This idea that hope is hard work and it’s not just optimism, you have to show up and keep showing up to make hope happen.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really well said. Now, just one last thing before we go. I know you and I were talking about Corita’s 10 rules and how those are something else that resonates with art teachers. It’s a question you get from art teachers a lot, so can you talk about what the 10 rules are and maybe how they can relate to what we’re doing in art rooms?

Nellie: Yeah. Well, I have to say that most people start with having a favorite rule that they’re drawn to or at least that day. So they’re known as the Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules and Corita was the head of the art department in ’64 and onwards. And this was curated in collaboration with her students. So this was a larger conversation with her students, of what was the priority for her as a teacher but also as them as a student. And so together they compiled these 10 rules. And again, everyone has a different rule that they’re drawn to but this larger idea at the very end that I really personally resonate with, is that there should be new rules next week. So this idea of just remaining flexible in your practice, remaining joyful in your practice. Again, going back to the other term plork, that play and work can be one.

And that I think for many reasons, that could be probably why I imagine our educators are really drawn to these 10 rules of creativity can happen from many different levels. And I love the idea that not to edit, at the same time of making, right? Creating and analyzing they’re different processes, so sometimes you just really need to dive right in. And so we actually have that as a poster and I have to say, it’s one of the things that we get asked about more often than not.

Tim: That’s awesome. Cool. All right. Well, Nellie, thank you so much for the time today, you’ve given us a lot to think about, a lot to appreciate and also some resources to maybe take back to the classroom, which I know everyone will appreciate. So thank you so much for all of that.

Nellie: Wonderful. Thanks so much, Tim.

Tim: Nellie talked about the power of a great educator and Corita fits that description. She can be an inspiration for each one of us who are working with kids every day. And as we talked about in the intro and throughout the interview, there are so many resources available through the Corita Arts Center website. So many great things that are there, so we will have links for all of that stuff. And you can enhance your understanding. You can learn and more. You can find activities and lessons and videos that are worth sharing with your kids, there’s so much out there. So if you want to explore, there just a plethora of resources out there that are ready for you right now.

And I think Nellie said it best, when we’re thinking about bringing Corita’s artwork into the classroom. You don’t need an invitation to participate in Corita’s work and her art and her message both still resonate in the classroom, because those ideas of hope and love and justice are still incredibly relevant to the work that we’re doing today in the art room. Nellie also mentioned Corita’s rules, and I would encourage you to look up the 10, maybe even see if they’re worth putting in your classroom. They’re all great, I personally like rule seven and the full text of that one says, 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.

Now, I hope that this conversation and these resources can serve as the impetus for you, you to find a place in your teaching for Corita, if her work and her message and her teachings inspire you, they’re probably going to inspire your students as well. Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you, as always for listening and we’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.