“What would it look like if we could come together, not in protest, but in joy, and center these very real human issues, such as poverty and world hunger?”NELLIE SCOTT
Two month has passed since the debut incarnation of my project The Gatherade Stand; a co-authored art project in the form of a lemonade stand that serves drinks made from wild-foraged plants and creates opportunities for collaborative creativity centering those same plants. I initiated the project in Spring 2022 in Portland, Oregon at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School to encourage the connection of students and their communities to the natural world through the King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) a contemporary art museum and social practice art project inside the elementary school. Since its inception, The Gatherade Stand has supported community building, nature education, and cross-disciplinary artmaking through collages, drawings, poems, audio works, and soda making.
The inaugural spring season of The Gatherade Stand was dedicated to the nettle plant. Alongside serving nettle tea, we began by displaying a large wooden sign that proudly appropriates Gatorade branding, which pivots on the interests of the fifth grade audience. We then made visual artworks that responded to the prompt: “If a nettle plant made a protest sign, what would it say?” We hosted a table at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Celebration Day and offered a collaging prompt inspired by nettle shapes. Further workshops facilitated song and poetry writing about and for the nettle plant and making soda from dried nettle leaves inside a school classroom. Finally, DJ and composer DJ Tikka Masala was invited to collaborate on an audio piece about nettle. As I gear up for the project’s first big culminating moment through an interactive installation for The Gatherade Stand 01 at Assembly 2022 at KSMoCA, I’m asking: How much of The Gatherade Stand is about Pop Art? How much is about adequacy, “the idea of making art that barely passes the threshold of being art (Harrell Fletcher. An Incomplete and Subjective List of Terms and Topics Related to Art and Social Practice Volume One, 2022)”? What is the message behind this blend of nature, mass culture, fifth grade voices, and co-creation? How does it all relate to this urgent moment of climate catastrophe?
I gained a treat on this trail of wanderings when my astute classmate, Laura Glazer, referenced the artist Sister Corita Kent in response to The Gatherade Stand sign. She remarked on synchronicities with Corita around Pop Art and co-authoring with students. My curiosity was immediately piqued around Corita’s incorporation of advertising images and slogans as well as popular song lyrics, biblical verses, and literature as a strategy to connect with a broader audience. I also wanted to learn more about the increasingly political direction in her work, as she urged viewers to consider poverty, racism, and injustice. On top of that, I discovered how prolific she was, and collaborative in terms of working relationships with students as well as businesses and nonprofits that aligned with her mission: at the time of her death, she had created almost 800 serigraph editions, thousands of watercolors, and innumerable public and private commissions. Corita’s work inspires me as I continue to develop The Gatherade Stand, with the ultimate aim of building connections to the natural world at this crucial moment. To my delight, Nellie Scott, director of the Corita Art Center and PSU alumni, was eager to converse around my questions.
Gilian Rappaport: Would you consider Corita Kent a socially engaged artist?
Nellie Scott: When I consider what she was doing at The Immaculate Heart College in the 1960s while she was a nun, what she was doing with her students, and the proto-happenings, it does feel very rooted in the social practice ethos. She offers an interesting intersection between Social Practice and Pop Art, which is her most frequent association.
Gilian: I’m interested in exactly that intersection.
Where did the Wonderbread imagery come from, and who were the students that she was collaborating with at The Immaculate Heart College?
Nellie: Pop Art was really a tool for her at the intersection of faith, art, and social justice. In wonderbread, she’s drawing very much from Wonder Bread packaging. In 1962, there were many things happening at the same time in a fruitful way. Vatican II was this larger calling in Catholic history to think about who they’re serving and how they’re serving them, and it even changed the language that they were using to connect with people in mass, which went from Latin to English. That’s one of the reasons that Corita began appropriating packaging.
Also, The Immaculate Heart College was this incredible location for women’s education. Ultimately when many left and sought dispensation from their vows, 40% had master’s degrees or higher. And it wasn’t just the art department getting accolades, it was also the science department, and people were publishing books. It was a hotbed of creative activity. Her students were this active hub of young women primarily, often in their undergraduate study. There are great stories about her students, it was a very creative environment that was very collective in its practice. They were often the ones hanging the screens by little pins all over, and helping to clean the screens.
It’s also important that a grocery store went in across the street, right next to the space that the college was using for printmaking, which was ultimately Corita’s studio. They walked into the grocery store using a tool called a viewfinder, which is a one-inch-by-one-inch square that Corita was using to teach her students how to see again. This is part of her approach to social justice as well. Sometimes taking in the whole picture can be overwhelming, but by isolating small parts and focusing on just that little bit, one can find gratitude in that place and create change. In this way, she was teaching them to see again.
Gilian: Was it intended for her students or was she envisioning a broader national or international audience?
Nellie: She was a nun, and her art practice was always for the common good and the greatest audience possible, versus as a tool in the marketplace. It came down to how she saw her contribution to her order. She believed that everyone had a job to do as part of a collective whole, and her artwork was, in some cases, a way to provide resources for the order.
Being a nun and having taken the vow of poverty, she wasn’t using the most expensive materials. Printmaking is a really democratic medium, but was mostly used in commercial settings. When she was at USC, she printed on paper towels from the bathroom. She was using what was the best that was around her, and finding inspiration there too.
Also, she wasn’t working in a silo. She had seen the Duchamp show at the Pasadena Art Museum, which many of the West Coast, mostly male, Pop Artists had seen and drew inspiration from. She was going on long lecture tours across the country, had an exhibition in New York, and was cross-pollinating with a lot of the artists that were working at that time.
Once she started screen printing, she quickly began getting more attention and ultimately became a lightning rod of thought, hope, and conversations around the subjects in her work. And she was always taking on commissions for nonprofits and causes that she believed in. She knew her work was valued, which enabled her to give further. This wasn’t a typical model at the time.
Gilian: What, if anything, do you see as Corita’s unique contribution to social forms of art as a discipline?
Nellie: There are so many milestones to touch on there. The one that is most well known is her Ten Rules which still hangs in many classrooms and art studios. She made those in her classroom by asking “What’s important in being a student, and what’s important in being an educator?” From there, they curated these rules together.
Also, when we think about her happenings now, they feel like prototypes to what later became central to the counterculture identity of hippie festivals in California.
In 1964, Corita was tapped, as the Head of the Art Department, to rethink the Mary’s Day celebration. Years prior, it very much centered on Mary and it had always been kind of a straightforward, traditional event. Corita was put in charge with her students, and they extended this practice that she was already doing of processions. The Vatican and the Pope were concerned about world hunger. Corita, the Order of Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the students of the Immaculate Heart college completely redecorated the college campus in Hollywood, and also created incredible signs and banners that spoke to this cause.
A lot of people think Mary’s Day was a protest, but it was a procession. The idea was: what would it look like if we could come together, not in protest but in joy, and center these very real human issues, such as poverty and world hunger? And there’s food packaging everywhere because Corita and her students just went into the grocery store, and were like, “You have some extra boxes? Great, we’re going to take them.” And they built these larger box towers by painting and decorating those directly to be stacked on top of one another. The students created the vision and social justice messaging throughout these works as well.
Gilian: Will you share more about the box towers?
Nellie: The box towers continued with her students well beyond Mary’s Day. For example, there’s Peace on Earth, a commission by IBM in 1965 for an installation in the form of a Christmas window display for their showroom on Madison Avenue in New York. Corita offered her students Mickey Myers and Paula McGowan directorship on the commission, which she had received days before, and worked out the contract. The students created an exhibition using 725 cardboard boxes, and featuring quotes by five recently deceased men of peace: Pope John XXIII, JFK, Adlai Stevenson, Dag Hammarskjöld, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Newspapers across the country ran stories claiming that the students and Corita had protested the Vietnam War through the art installation on the most consumerist street in New York City, Madison Avenue.
This was a great example of her collaborating with her students for a message, and centering that message as the reason behind the art. The objects are not unimportant, but the message, the meaning, and the collective coming together is priority one. And the byproduct of this incredible collaboration is almost like eye candy, when your eyes go across all of these messages your heart stops. You realize how relevant those messages are today.
Nellie: Her pedagogy is this incredible, rich thing that she left us. These fundamental practices in education are things she was doing with her students forever ago. It’s such a well of inspiration to draw upon.
Gilian: In what ways are you drawing upon that inspiration today?
Nellie: Since you are in Portland, I wanted to mention that Kate Bingaman-Burt, Co-Director of the School of Art and Design at Portland State University, was the Artist-in-Residence at the Portland Art Museum while the Corita Kent: Spiritual Pop (2016) show was up at such a pivotal election time. Kate made a call out for the term “power up” and ultimately made a screen print of power up that was distributed more widely.
power up is a print that Corita made in her studio. The Los Angeles Archdiocese at the time had banned the radical priest Daniel Berrigan from presenting at the college, and at this time, he wasn’t even the radical person that we all know and love. So Corita took his words and made this artwork, and then made it into an installation for the students for reading and perhaps prayer. She was thinking of this hierarchy of what might be traditional prayer versus reading the current events of our time as a participatory citizen and human.
So in 2016, at the Portland Art Museum, this work was on display, and people were visiting it the day after the election and finding solace in these words that were made 50 years ago.
Nellie: Also, last year, we had a cohort of students through our video program Learning by Heart. The program takes its name from the seminal book Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit that Corita co-wrote with Jan Steward, which details the teaching methods that she developed.
At the end of our partnership program with Casa Esperanza, a youth program in Panorama City, as a kind of culmination, we asked them, “If you could have a message that you could broadcast to your neighbors, what would that look like? What would it be?” We were working with a lot of immigrants, and we created a box tower together with that message as this temporary installation in their neighborhood.
At the Kennedy Center last week [May 1, 2022], we debuted POW POW POWER UP: Someday is Now, an opera installation, which was made collaboratively by interdisciplinary artist Liss LaFleur, composer Samuel Beebe, and the Corita Art Center, and performed by choral ensemble The Artifice. This performance is the first of 29 mini-operas, each referencing one individual artwork from Corita’s heroes and sheroes series. This inaugural performance was inspired by the artwork titled green fingers, and gathered a community to center on environmental justice. We invited participants to join the performance in a celebratory procession a la Mary’s Day.
Nellie: We also hosted a hands-on art-making event in Los Angeles on Earth Day with Self Help Graphics & Art, with instruction by lead teaching artist Oscar Rodriguez. It was founded by a woman named Sister Karen, who was a former student of Corita’s. Participants had the opportunity to create and personalize posters that featured some of Corita’s iconic words and phrases. The collection of posters traveled to Washington, D.C., and became part of the performance at the Kennedy Center.
We asked the participants to center themselves, in many ways like a love letter to a stranger involving environmental justice and respond to the prompt, “What does it mean to be a human on this earth?” Some of the signs were so beautiful and timely in that conversation. Also, the individuals who carried them in D.C. had never met the people who made them in Los Angeles, yet can see their name, their message, and be torch bearers of that message in this larger procession.
It was an act of interconnectivity, in a way that will be crucial in days and years to come in really talking about environmental justice. It was a reminder, if people didn’t learn this from COVID, that we are all connected. Just because we live in one state doesn’t mean that we don’t affect another state. We are one planet.
Gilian: Do you have a favorite of Corita’s 10 Rules?
Nellie: With this project, our effort is to “consider everything an experiment!” We [Corita Art Center] very much approach what it is that we’re doing, supporting, and thinking through as experimentation. As an organization, we’re going to get a lot of things wrong, and we’re going to get a lot of things right. In that process, there’s so much understanding in feedback.
We’re very fortunate to be the stewards of her legacy. We’re participating in so many different worlds—as a nonprofit and also as an artist estate. We’re always asking, “What’s the meaning of all of this? How do we actually use her work? And also feed people? How do we use her work for mental wellness, and to talk about these very heavy topics, and this wonderful intersection of faith and art and social justice? How can you be the stewards of a legacy but also meet the ethos she presented in her lifetime?”
Nellie Scott (she/her) holds her degree in Art History from Portland State University and Szeged University in Hungary. With art accessibility as a pillar to all of her professional endeavors, Scott has spent the last decade developing exhibitions and art education initiatives geared toward democratizing art engagement. Prior to holding the position of Director at the Corita Art Center, she served as an independent consultant and art advisor for a variety of public and private foundations, institutions, artists, and estates.
Gilian Rappaport (they/she) is an artist, educator, and naturalist. In this urgent moment of climate catastrophe, their practice is asking, what can we learn from closeness with nature, and the paths to get there? They believe co-authorship can deepen our connection to ourselves, our communities, and our natural environments. The granddaughter of Ashkenazi migrants by way of Russia and Poland, they were born and raised in New York between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. Gilian is openly queer, and lives and works in Rockaway Beach, Queens and Portland, Oregon. Follow them @gilnotjill.
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