In a sunny photo from 1964, a big group of nuns and girls with flowers in their hair hold pink signs that say “God Likes Me” or “I Like God.” That photo, of the Mary's Day celebration held at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, is included in a glass case in “Someday Is Now: The Art of Corita Kent,” which just opened at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.

“Mary's Day used to be very formal,” Lenore Navarro Dowling, a former Sister of the Immaculate Heart order, says on a recent Tuesday as she stands near the glass case that holds the photo. She taught art at Immaculate Heart alongside Sister Corita Kent throughout the 1960s and remembers that, before Kent reinvented it, Mary's Day mostly involved a formal procession. From the early 1960s onward, it became a kind of hippie festival with guitar playing (Beatles music at one point), pop art posters by Kent's students and protest signs. It didn't fit any stereotype of “nunlike.”

“I think Corita's evolution followed the evolution of our culture from the 1950s to the 1960s,” Dowling observes. She wears a rainbow-striped dress and multiple necklaces — members of the Immaculate Heart Community, as it is now called, have not worn habits since they went rogue in 1970, breaking with the Catholic Church. “We weren't an island,” Dowling adds.

“Someday Is Now,” curated by L.A.-based Michael Duncan and New York–based Ian Berry, first opened at Skidmore College, then traveled through the Midwest and now to Southern California, where Kent lived most of her life. It's the first time the L.A. artist, who died in 1986, has had a retrospective of this scale, accompanied by a big, glossy catalog.

Kent has been a cult figure for years — she inspired a host of young L.A. artists who discovered her at print sales or in Life or Time magazine and, famously, she designed the “Love” stamp that debuted in the 1980s. But perhaps because she made such accessible, optimistic, intentionally low-priced work and was associated more with a religious order than a pop scene, she has never received her institutional due.

The PMCA exhibition begins with the religious prints Kent made in the '50s. Ray Smith, director of the Corita Art Center run by the Immaculate Heart Community, has come to the museum to walk through the show with Dowling and points out that, from the beginning, Kent's art bucked trends. “The religious art at the time was very glossy, shiny, with bright colored robes,” he says. It was the era of the “shampoo Jesus” with “bouncy curls,” but Kent's Jesus often looked skinny and stylized, with stringy, matted hair.

One of these prints, the lord is with thee, won first prize in a competition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1952.

Kent probably entered because her ambitious colleague Sister Magdalen Mary, or Maggie, pushed her to do so. “Maggie, she was like an agent,” Dowling recalls.

By the time Dowling, who taught film, joined the Immaculate Heart College faculty in 1961, Kent was taking a far less explicit approach to religious art. Instead of depicting loaves and fish, she might spell out the word “fish” in bright capital letters. She also borrowed from pop culture. A series of prints she made in 1964 and '65 riff on the Wonder Bread logo. Red letters that read “Enriched Bread” float above white circles cut into blue and red stripes. Tiny cursive text in red bubbles below explains how God cannot appear to all humans except in the form of bread.

“We always read this as being about the Eucharist,” Dowling says.

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.; Credit: Courtesy of the Corita Art Center

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.; Credit: Courtesy of the Corita Art Center

Most of Kent's work would be made over three summer weeks between her teaching sessions. Her classes were as open-ended as her art was. After Kent became art department chair in 1964, she instituted rules: No. 8 was “We're Breaking All of the Rules. Even Our Own,” a quote from experimental composer John Cage. A note at the bottom of the list said, “There should be new rules next week.”

In the mid-1960s, church leaders in L.A. began to pay unfavorable attention to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart in general, and Kent in particular. The Second Vatican Council, a meeting of Catholic leaders in Rome, had just convened, loosening the church's rules and allowing nuns to dress more casually and take on greater leadership roles. The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart embraced the allowances. L.A.'s Cardinal McIntyre thought they went too far.

In 1964, Kent made a print that suggested “Mother Mary is the juiciest tomato of them all,” which Kent saw as a comment on advertising slogans but Cardinal McIntyre saw as sacrilegious. He wrote angry letters to Dr. Anita Caspary, the order's leader, eventually showing up at the Immaculate Heart campus, as April Dammann describes in her recent Kent biography, yelling at Caspary, “You will suffer for this!”

The sisters began holding meetings. They had to decide whether, as Dowling says, to “be obedient or self-determining.” Kent's artistic prowess made her a de facto figurehead in the public's eye, but she was rarely a leading voice in these gatherings.

“One time she stood up,” Dowling recalls, “and said, 'Well, wouldn't it be so simple if we could just say let's love one another?'?”

This would have been simpler, of course, but when the nuns opted to be self-determining, they had to break with the Catholic Church altogether, and McIntyre banned them from teaching in Catholic parochial schools. “We didn't know if we would survive. We had no model or road map,” Dowling says.

Kent left the college around that time, in 1968, but not because of the uncertainty. “She didn't want to be the spokesperson,” Smith says. The year before, she'd appeared on the cover of Newsweek under the words “The Nun: Going Modern.” She needed a break.

Kent's work became looser after her departure. She made a series of protest posters in support of the Vietnam-opposed Berrigan Brothers, radical priests who were friends of hers. She painted a “rainbow swash,” as she called it, on a massive natural-gas storage tank along I-93 in Boston. “She always said: Art doesn't belong in the museum,” Dowling says, pausing at a glass case in the show's final gallery and laughing. “So that's an irony. To preserve Corita, she is encased, but in her own lifetime she would object to thinking of art as needing protection and closure.”

When Kent died, she left a collection of her prints to the UCLA Grunewald Collection, but the rest of her work she left to the Immaculate Heart Community, who founded the tiny Corita Art Center.

The final work in the show is one Kent made after the U.S. Postal Service debuted her stamp, with the word “Love” written below an abstracted rainbow. It was officially released on the set of The Love Boat, an event Kent refused to attend. That shallow TV version of love — where “everything gets resolved in an hour,” she said — was not the kind she meant. To prevent further misreading, she made a different version of the image. “Love is hard work,” it says.

Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena; through Nov. 1 (626) 568-3665,

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