Learning by Heart

Corita Kent was a nun who taught art for more than 20 years in Los Angeles. Jan Steward knew Sister Corita and became the biographer using an interesting concept to create to create the biographs, Learning By Heart, Teachings To Free The Creative Spirit.

Sister Corita Kent early in her career, when she still wore a habit.

Sister Corita Kent early in her career, when she still wore a habit.

Jan would write down an idea, a sentence, a memory, or a quote she remembered from Sr. Corita, and toss it into a box marked with the name of a course Sr. Corita taught. The two women wrote back and forth about the book, until Sr. Corita died unexpectedly. But Jan didn’t quit or give up. She finished the book, which has become a cult favorite. The chapter titles were taken from courses that Sr. Corita taught: Sources, Structure, Connect & Create, Work Play, Celebration.

I’ve met Jan, and just finished reading her book again. I love the determination of both Corita Kent, who met considerable resistance in teaching art her way, and Jan Steward, who brought the book to completion.

Some quotes from the book for inspiration:

Limitation is what differentiates a flood from a lake. In th emaking of things, limitations allow ou to choose from something rather than everything.”

Image, © Sr. Corita Kent. Quote by Albert Camus: [I] "should like to be able to love my country and still love justice,"

Image, © Sr. Corita Kent. Quote by Albert Camus: [I] “should like to be able to love my country and still love justice,”

“Everything is a Source: There are two objects to my left on the table where I am typing. One is a purple plastic ink bottle . . . the other is a photoraph of a bronze statue of Lord Shiva. . . Either could be a source for my drawin The content of the object will not determine the success of my work.”

“Artists are people who have developd their seeing muscles in much the same way as weight-ifters develop thelir lifting muscles–by constant, disciplined use.”

Jan Steward's book about Corita Kent.

Jan Steward’s book about Corita Kent., from amazon.com

“We tend to think of play as abstract, without a goal, and somewhat irresponsible–while work suggests a goal, is specific and honorable. Because of this, play can be more challenging–even though we have been taught to perceive work as that challenge.”

“There are moments in the creative process when one is aware of great things happening, but I never feel that is the Creative Process. It is only a punctuated moment of excitement in the larger process. The hard times, too, are prt of the creative process; for example when I can’t sleep at night or lose the meaning of what it’s all about.

It can be a time of drudgery–a dirty, collecting time when I sharpen pencils or clear work space, but we know that somehow these things are necessary . . .”

—Quinn McDonald is amazed at how Jan’s book and Sr. Corita’s wisdom still rings true, decades later. She takes comfort in that.


8 thoughts on “Learning by Heart

  1. Corita is one of my idols. I have an extensive post on my blog about her and her works. I would have loved to have met her and taken a class with her. Learning by Heart is the book that I recommend more so than any other. I am thankful that Jan was able to compile and write it. It’s something everyone should read and have.

    There is a new book of her artwork that’s been on my wishlist since it was announced. It looks like it hasn’t come out yet (it was due out in June) but I’ll be posting about it when I get it in my hands!!

    Vincent Price had a gallery in East L.A. He had an extensive collection of art and was the author of another favorite book called “I Like What I Know” (his “Book of Joe” is also wonderful.)

    For what it’s worth, John Cage wrote the list of rules and Corita illustrated them. 😉

    • I heard of Sr. Corita a long time ago, and was fascinated with her place in time. As a nun and a woman, it was difficult for her to get her work thought of as serious. In those days, her loose style was considered “wrong” and “amateurish”–and those “what is OK in art” was a big issue for her. She got it trouble with the Archbishop of Los Angeles quite often for not being obedient and other control issues. She was fearless. My friend who was also a prof. in grad school is a good friend of Jan’s and Norine collected a lot of Corita’s art, so the story is personal to me. I’ve seen Corita’s list of rules, and love them, but had forgotten that John Cage wrote them. Can’t wait for her next book. It’s so cool, Kelly, to know that you know about her and love her, too. And thanks for mentioning Vincent Price’s books–more reading to enjoy!

  2. I feel like I was the beneficiary of Corita’s teaching as I knew several people who studied at Immaculate Heart and knew her. I love her list of “rules.” She and Maggie, another nun and her cohort, were famous but often overlooked in history of art in Los Angeles. Recently a show was curated at combined Corita’s more political work with Aids activist’s posters. Maggie and Corita invited Vincent Price who had a major art collection and Ray and Charles Eames to speak to their students. What a combo.

    • I knew about Eames, there is a great section in the book about him, but I dind’t know about Vincent Price speaking to students. She was very well known and yes, often overlooked. I know Jan Stewart and a collector friend of hers, so there are good stories.

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