10 Inspiring rules set by Sister Corita Kent

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

I believe that this rule by Sister Corita Kent applies to writing just as it applies to any other creative process. When I try to write creatively, I find that it is good to just let the words flow. Then leave them to rest for a while, before going back with a fresh view to edit them.

I am revisiting the work of Sister Corita Kent, following a recent email from a friend with the subject header ‘inspiration’. It stated that they were starting a “collective, constructive, and hopefully uplifting exchange” and it was a chain-letter-type-thing that asked simply if I could send an encouraging quote or verse to the person detailed in the email. The deal being that in turn someone (probably a friend of a friend), should send some texts to me sometime soon. I quickly settled on sharing the Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules, which I first spotted in a compelling exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts in 2013. It was at this exhibition that I was first introduced to the work of Sister Corita Kent (1918 – 1986), an activist nun who ran the art department at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles for over 20 years.

Sister Corita Exhibition 3

In total, the Immaculate Heart Art College Department Rules state:

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined — this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: 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.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.

In the exhibition, the words of these rules were printed on a number of boxes that were combined to build a room and inside they screened a film. Now almost two years on, this ‘inspiration’ email prompted me to search the for this film ‘We Have No Art’ and I found it lurking in the land of film known as Youtube. I’ve now watched it again a number of times. I’ll probably watch it a few more times by the time this blog post is finished. So I feel pleased that in the quest of inspiring a friend of a friend via email, I’ve also found a little time to explore the work of Sister Corita Kent once more.

I like the sentiments shared in this film, both by Corita and her students. It gave me a chance to get a sense of their methods of thinking and teaching. The film starts with a brilliant and humorous introduction, as Corita discusses why you should never blink when watching a film.

I think maybe one of the most important rules about looking at films that I can think of is that you should never blink. You should really keep your eye straight on the film and never miss anything. Because if you blink or close your eyes or turn around, I always think it is comparable to skipping several pages of a book.

The first time I watched it, I found myself subsequently intent on trying to stay focused and unblinking. A rare thing when watching films on my laptop at home, as I normally have my eye on both the film, on my phone and occasionally peering round my living room. It is one reason I like going to the cinema, as surrounded by the engulfing darkness and large screen, it is much easier to focus on simply watching the intended film. Corita goes on to ask a few questions of her students, then follows by sharing one of the roles she believes that art plays.

The function of a work of art has always been to alert people to things they might have missed. So the happening is that in a very intense way it gives people an experience of being rather, totally involved in sound, in colour, in movement… In everything that the body is somehow connected with in a very intense way. Which is really what art is. Art is not necessarily life, or directly connected with life. It is an intensified thing.

It then goes on to detail a number of assignments and it makes me want to try some of them myself. I like how she details the quantity of work that is often required to create something new. I think that is something that is often forgotten when trying to make art or be creative. This is highlighted when one of her students states:

Usually assignments are very large. They’ll say, do alot of things. Do 50 things or 100 things depending upon on what it is. Because you start out making those 100 things and the first 20 things are based upon ideas that you had, and then suddenly you have to go somewhere else… That struggle is like the best… Then you do 25 more that grow out of the conflict between knowing what to do and not knowing what to do, and those are usuually the best things.

If following Corita’s method of assignments and teaching, it follows that any first set of ideas are probably just part of the process required to lead to further ideas.

For the last couple of years, I have found myself involved in an art project called Fun a Day. This annual project requires that I do something daily for the month of January and I have often found that those initial tasks are what have been the seeds of ideas that I have then developed further at a later stage in the year.

I haven’t completed Fun a Day this year, but I have been focussing on developing my fitness this January. So I’ve spent my evenings swimming, doing yoga, running, walking and even lifting some weights! Whilst doing all of this I have been thinking alot about the determination and spirit required to build fitness and health. It’s constant. Particularly with yoga, I have found that it is very easy to surprise myself and that actually my body can beat my mind. As when our teacher asks us to breathe and deepen into a stretch, I always find that I can push it further than I imagined. As I think about these lessons in fitness and these lessons in creativity, I come to think that they are actually quite a similar lesson. It is simply the intention, purpose and subsequent results that will change.

Getting back onto the topic of Sister Corita Kent, I soon found myself watching this film ‘Become Microscope’ by Aaron Rose. It features a number of engaging interviews with previous students of Sister Corita and they overwhelmingly discuss the uplifting impact that she had on their practice and belief in themselves as artists.

I like how they discuss the importance of the element of community upon her developing both in art and in life. They also share the impact that Corita had on their ability to open their eyes and open their minds. One of the ladies states:

I learned from Corita how to be open to everything. How everything can be a source of inspiration. How to see with new eyes.

Another agrees by sharing:

I think that was all part of her work ethic to just keep people looking, because first time we look at things, we don’t see things… To really look and to really see things. That’s a great gift, to teach people how to see.

So I’m going to round this up for now. However, I’ve just picked the book Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita Kent and I think I may continue to explore her work over a few further posts.

This blog has been neglected for a while, but I’m planning to build it back up this year, bit by bit!