The archivist for the United Church of Christ spends a lot of time cataloging and tracking material that dates back decades. Even so, it comes as a bit of a surprise that he unfurled a piece of history Tuesday. The UCC's national offices in Cleveland have been in possession of a painting, possibly since the 1960s, that shares a message of love and faith, which was displayed at the World's Fair 50 years ago.
The artwork, a banner that is more than 40 feet long, is the work of Sister Mary Corita (Corita Kent). The Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art sent curators to the UCC Church House to examine the piece on March 18. The museum is considering featuring the banner during an upcoming travel exhibit, Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent, which will run from June through September.
"Finding out about this incredible piece, right here in Cleveland, sent some shockwaves through our curatorial team," said Rose Bouthillier, associate curator and publication manager for MOCA. "It's quite the coincidence, and the banner would be an absolutely stunning addition to the show."
Sister Mary Corita Kent, whose signature is visible in the lower right corner of the canvas, was known for artwork during the 1960s and 1970s that depicted love and peace. The nun painted the piece for the Vatican Exhibit of the 1964 World's Fair in New York City.
The missing bit of information about the painting is how it came into the UCC's possession.
Ed Cade, archivist for the UCC's national setting, said the Corita Art Center contacted him to inquire about the piece, Beatitudes Wall, for the exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Five women, two from MOCA and three from the Intermuseum Conservation Association, inspected "The Beatitudes" in detail and measured its dimensions, and will determine soon if it will be displayed at MOCA this summer.
"My hunch is when the World's Fair was over that no one knew what to do with it," said the Rev. Robert P. "Rip" Noble, who served with the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries as executive associate from 1985 to 2000. Noble hung the artwork in the Church House years ago because "it's a piece of UCBHM and UCC history in terms of support by the church for the arts, and specifically our relationship with Sister Corita. It's a fabulous piece."
When the UCC first moved to Cleveland from New York City, Noble, who chaired the effort to renovate part the building space, designed a wall long enough to display Beatitudes for a few years in the early 1990s. When the building was reconfigured the piece came down and was relegated to the archives where it has remained over the years.
Because of the UCC's relationship with Kent, the United Church Press published two books of her works in the late 1960s. Historians say Kent's art often depicts a blend of social justice, peace and spirituality. Those elements are present in the 40-foot canvas the UCC possesses, with the word "happy" in large colorful letters in several places.
The painting is strewn with a mix of Bible scripture, and quotes from Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy. JFK and Pope John XXIII both died in 1963, but Kent used their comments for "The Beatitudes" because they were "great heroes of the time," according to archives at the Corita Art Center. Kent actually painted three 40-foot banners for the World's Fair and chose this one to display.
Kent later gained international attention for her vibrant artwork in the style of serigraphs – an art form of silk-screening. She was born Frances Kent and joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and ran the art department at Immaculate Heart College until 1968. Kent died in 1986.
Some of Sister Kent's collection has been held by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York City.