Posted 07 March 2019
Interview by Marianne Hanoun

The only rule is work: Sister Corita Kent’s timeless advice for students

When you work in a fast-paced and ever-changing industry, the nature of advice can be pretty specific to that particular moment. There are, however, universal gems of creative advice that have proven timeless. Sister Corita Kent is case in point. An artist, activist, educator and nun, Corita’s work is loved for being both joyful and radical in equal measure. In the late 1960s, Corita devised a set of ‘rules’ for her students, which have gone on to inspire countless others since. As part of an exhibit at the House of Illustration (the UK’s biggest ever dedicated show of her work), curator Olivia Ahmad introduces the rules, and tells us why they are so enduring.

Corita Kent used everything around her as source material for her work – she didn’t see a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, or think that the visual chaos of urban life was a bad thing. Her work embraces and transforms even the most mundane things. In 1965, Corita took the advertising slogan of an oil corporation, ‘Power up’, to make a series of four prints that combine to form a spectacular 3.5-metre work that inspires action, and acts as the centrepiece of our exhibition.

Becoming a nun aged 18, Corita later became a teacher at the Immaculate Heart College and went on to serve as head of the art department there. It was here that she devised the rules, produced with lettering by calligrapher David Mekelburg, and pinned up in her classroom. As an incredibly committed and experimental educator, her advice reflects the way that she encouraged her students to both work hard, but also to take pleasure in their work.

The words also include a quote from John Cage – one of the many art and design luminaries that Corita invited to talk to her students. Her guest lecturers are like a who’s who of influential midcentury practitioners; from Charles and Ray Eames and Alfred Hitchcock to Saul Bass – the list is staggering.

“Her rules reflect the way that she encouraged her students to work hard, but also to take pleasure in their work.”

Like Corita’s work, the rules are very humane – they let you try to ‘fail’, and encourage you to persevere and not to be too hard on yourself. They encourage discussion with the people around you, which is important, as creative work can sometimes be a lonely pursuit. Corita tells you to “enjoy yourself” too – an instruction that we can all get on board with!

Perhaps the most important thing is that the rules aren’t set in stone, which reflects Corita’s openness to the world and to change, making them more of a starting point for a dialogue than a dogma – “there should be new rules next week” she says.

Corita's rules

Sister Corita Kent’s Rules

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.

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.

The exhibit at the House of Illustration

LIP members currently get 2-for-1 tickets for the ‘Corita Kent: Power Up’ exhibition at House of Illustration. Click here to access your offers and promotions and book your tickets.

Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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