In June 2017, Bernardo Ramirez Rios, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, and his student Lisa Moran ’17 interviewed artist Jeffrey Gibson about Corita Kent and the influence she has had on his artwork.
The video is comprised of excerpts from the interview, a longer transcript of Gibson’s interview is below.
Bernardo Ramirez Rios
What draws you to Corita Kent?
Corita Kent combined everything from spirituality and religion, conviction, belief, politics, pop, aesthetics, and color. Those are all things I had been criticized for in my work as a young artist. How do these bigger ideas intersect with aesthetics and beauty? In the ’90s when I was an undergraduate at the Art Institute of Chicago, anything with political intention was meant to look very serious and intentionally political. It certainly didn’t involve color. It certainly didn’t involve beauty. Those things were taught as reasons to look critically at the work and maybe not trust it.
I bought my first Corita print in probably 2008. It says, “people like us,” and sits in our dining room, so I see it every morning. I began to relate to the words “people like us” in terms of thinking about the communities that I’m affiliated with: LGBTQ, Choctaw, Cherokee, and an artistic community in upstate New York. Those became the “us” and the “people,” and then I started looking deeper into her work and trying to find other political tensions. If you look at her larger body of work, it ebbs and flows between being more direct to more playful.
I first saw Corita’s prints by chance. I’d never heard of Corita Kent and didn’t know what the prints were about, but I stopped because for some reason, they felt familiar. I was drawn to the aesthetics and the use of color. From the Chicano 1960s and 1970s art that I grew up with, bright colors that are spiritual in nature are very familiar to me. Could you speak about that aesthetic and color, and how those go hand in hand in terms of expression?
Color with Corita is the first attraction that I have—and in particular, fluorescent and neon color. From the time she was working, those colors were somewhat new and had this eye-catching immediacy. When I was making totally abstract paintings, I would use fluorescent color to reference fancy dancers and fancy shawl dancers in the powwow community, and people would say, “I don’t know how neon represents a Native aesthetic.” But I’ve seen dancers do everything. It was this idea of being able to draw attention to yourself because the powwow arena is competitive. From this kind of recognizable collective, powwow is where the individual can rise and be flamboyant and be on show.
Sometimes she’ll use color to highlight words within different phrases. The first time I saw damn everything but the circus I only saw an image of “everything.” Highlighted in a different color in “everything” are the words “very in.” In 2015/2016 gay culture, people often said, “everything” and “it gives me everything.” I researched that word deeper and learned that it goes into a Southern and African American religious culture and speaks about God and spirituality. The same thing with the word “living.” I am living. It gives me everything. You give me life. This is also going back to notions of God.
In the way that we talk about identity, we isolate “gay and lesbian” over here. We isolate “Native American” here. We isolate different communities by really reductive standards. The truth is in my life all of these things converged in the first twenty years, and then as an adult I started having to unpack and defend and justify. Corita’s work answered a lot of questions for me. She shows how to combine all of these ideas into one thing. Color is subjective, but it also begins to lean objectively in different contexts. Red, white, and blue to a French person is going to represent France, to an American person it’s going to represent the US, to a Puerto Rican person, it might represent Puerto Rico.
In Corita’s work, the neon color is reflective of the excitement of the ’60s and of political and social movements that were quite positive, like love in the face of war. There’s this celebratory embrace of light, of a kind of intentional-seeming whimsiness, which is difficult to do, but of the time period. The prints are very complex, and color unifies them in many ways.
You mentioned powwows. In my culture, I think of Día de los Muertos as an event with super-bright colors. Mymother worked in a Native American college in the ’90s, where I would hang out a lot, and powwows saw bright colors, but it was also a time when youth were bringing in their own culture, or Americanness, to the powwow. Michael Jordan sneakers were challenging tradition. Día de los Muertos, same thing; culture changes. Corita was trying to do that within the church as well. How do you see her work as pushing that redefinition of what tradition or authenticity is? Do you see her work challenging the traditionality of the church?
Corita used Biblical text directly on the surface. In no way could you deny that a nun couldn’t use the Word of God and distribute it; you preach and you distribute and you convert and you spread the Word. I think the initial impulse to create posters to spread the Word was the most important thing. People feel that Biblical text right on the surface is their access point. They can read something they’ve already read, something they already believe in, and it’s in this new context. It’s in a new color. It’s in a new script. It’s also somehow confrontational, but you have no reason to resist it. It’s fluorescent pink—that’s a reason to resist it? No, it’s the Word of God. Also, if you’re not someone who understands this is the Word of God, the texts so easily apply to society, even today. You’re able to see the words in a way where you think, I need grace. I need saving. The world needs saving. The world needs a savior. I think that that’s the most amazing thing with her work.
Could you talk about what it’s like to be taking this role as the voice of an oppressed or underrepresented group in the fine art space or in a public space, and what that is like when you’re drawing from your own experiences? Where is the line between showing your identity and your experience versus presenting something that others can relate to as well?
When I first started using text, the words were very much about me. The first text was on a punching bag—“believe, believe”—and it was in a moment of feelings of self-deprecation coming in and getting absorbed and weighted down. I had a lot of questions about faith. I had just come back from meeting traditional Native artists who were making earrings and silversmithing and quilting with the belief that they were saving their culture. I came back to Brooklyn and I thought, oh my gosh, we’re just whining; these are people who are trying to really believe in things. I thought, well, Jeff, you have to believe, believe, believe, believe. That’s what became my first text piece.
It was me speaking to me, but we’ve all had those moments where we feel like we’re losing belief, or our faith systems are failing us and we’re struggling to try to find something to hold on to. If you allow yourself to show vulnerability and you trust that other people have experienced vulnerability, that’s where an audience is formed. People began to see what I was speaking of as my personal relationships as having political resonance and speaking about community.
I perceive a conversation in Corita’s art, and not just between her and one viewer, but a conversation among many people. I see parallels with some of the work that you made with the punching bags. I can see it as an individual statement but also see it as declaring a need to talk about something. Could you speak about Corita’s involvement with community, social activism in the art itself, and how that influences your own work?
When Corita first started making prints, I don’t get the impression that she was making them as art. I think there was an enthusiasm and enjoyment, and then something clicks and she starts seeing it as a modernization of scripture and a way to connect. A lot of faiths talk about getting young people involved. How do we get them to pay attention? It was very much in the practice of being a servant of God when she initially began to make prints. Then she opened up to the public; she’s this radical nun who’s leading classes and talking about the pop world. She attracts some counter-culture movements that come in and people are making prints with her in DayGlo colors to move forward their own agendas.
When I’m looking at Corita’s prints, I see the shift in her voice from speaking on behalf of God to speaking of the world. And when she’s speaking of the world, she’s speaking of the world through a lens of religion, and that religion has some sense of ethic, but she’s really holding the bar very high. She’s not excluding herself or anyone else from what’s right, what’s evil, what’s good. She’s placing us all on the same judgment table. There’s an unusual generosity on her behalf of welcoming anybody into this conversation.