For almost a decade, my job at Fund for Teachers has allowed me to connect America’s best prek-12 teachers with opportunities to design summer fellowships of their dreams. Last week I had the privilege of working alongside a particularly special grant recipient at the College Football Playoff’s Extra Yard for Teachers Summit. With his FFT grant, Lavie Raven collaborated with activists, artists, curators and youth from the indigenous ‘Namgis community in British Columbia to create art work and music that represented cultural survival. (Read more here.) In addition to being an FFT Fellow, Lavie is a fifth-generation educator, veteran Chicago Public Schools teacher, triple major/double minor from DePaul University, Greenpeace warrior, Fulbright and National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow and dad of two daughters. But before ALL THAT, Lavie painted graffiti around Chicago, which he claims saved his life. At the Summit he shared his art in action, captivating passers by at the Tampa Bay Convention Center and enlightening 1,000 local teachers attending the TED-style event.
Lavie was raised an organic anarchist by his mama. He perfected various styles of illuminated script (languages from multiple cultures’ sacred texts) under leaders of different “graffiti dojos” around Chicago and founded Hip Hop University to pass his knowledge onto the next generation. When not teaching humanities at Lawndale Prep High School, Lavie answers the call of communities around the world to create art representing their fight against issues such as gentrification, the gun trade and water rights.
Naturally, my two “bad days” after chemo coincided with the Summit. Mark accompanied me to help set up and man Fund for Teachers’ space in the Teachers Lounge, a sacrificial move that subjected him to Chemo Carrie – my irrational, weak, demanding and angry altar ego. After setting up, then skulking around the Fan Fest looking for Dr. Pepper’s Larry Culpepper, I came down from my chemo/steroids hangover by sitting with my back to Tampa Bay’s “Yacht Village” and watching Lavie paint murals to enhance his Summit talk In Lak’ech, Mayan for “I Am Another You.”
“It’s beyond graffiti and writing,” said Lavie when I pushed him to describe his work. “It’s about solidarity, community, service and things we share in common soulfully.”
The 100,000 Alabama and Clemson fans pre-partying for Monday’s championship game definitely share solidarity when it comes to their teams. Mark, Lavie and I left Tampa Sunday afternoon, missing Usher’s performance in the Playoff Playlist arena near our hotel and escaping incessant “Roll Tide Rolls” and “Clemson Cadences.” Lawdhamercy.
The art in action of Sister Mary Corita‘s was the Siren’s song that lured me into a love of art history. As shared in a previous post, I picked up a book on her work during our family’s trip to Marfa several summers ago. The ten-hour drive home to Houston provided ample time to read Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita from cover to cover. My faith at the time was shifting on sands of frustration and discontent, so my heart leapt at the idea of a Catholic nun creating art to synergize women and impact culture and the church. An excerpt from the book:
“Corita was charismatic and fearless. She spoke and acted with conviction and verve, exuding good energy as she beckoned people to graciously sidestep oppressive cultural conventions in favor of celebration (perhaps) subversive interrogation of society through creativity and everyday action.”
Born in Iowa in 1918, Frances Elizabeth Kent and her family moved to Hollywood, where she graduated from high school and immediately entered the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent in 1936, taking the name Sister Mary Corita. (Nuns released their birth names to mitigate personal independence). During the following years, she earned a Bachelor’s degree from Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles and a Masters in Art History from the University of Southern California.
After a brief teaching stint in British Columbia, the Church called Corita back to Immaculate Heart College, where as art department chair, she urged women to see the spiritual in everyday, even a bag of Wonder bread or a Safeway grocery story sign. With her students, she conflated advertising slogans with Biblical references and produced serigraph posters using the silk screen press to reach the largest audience at the cheapest price.
In 1965, Corita and her work made the cover of Newsweek in an article labeling her the “Modern Nun”:
“Through her infectious vitality, Corita joyfully subverts the church’s neat divisions between secular and sacred. ‘She merely steps outside the rules and does her dance,’ says Jesuit poet Daniel Berrigan… ‘But she is not frivolous, except to those who see life as a problem. She introduces the intuitive, the unpredictable into religion, and thereby threatens the essentially masculine, terribly efficient, chancery-ridden, law-abiding, file-cabinet church.'”
Corita’s artistic anarchy established her as “The Nun Who Went Pop” and also persona non grata with the Catholic Church. She and her sisters celebrated Pope John XXIII’s 1962 Vatican II decree introducing more user-friendly aspects into the faith. This validation actualized Corita’s simmering ethos of individuation within a community and justified her disavowal of blind obedience to the Los Angeles Cardinal who led one of the most conservative archdioceses in the country at that time. The divergent interpretation of Vatican II by Cardinal and Corita ignited a public standoff, resulting in the dissolution of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order and the dispensation of Corita’s vows. She moved to Boston and continued using her art to leave a mark on society, most notably a 1971 liquid natural gas storage tank (rumored to include a profile of Ho Chin Minh in protest of the Vietnam War) and the 1985 Love postage stamp. Corita died in 1986 at age 67 after three bouts with cancer.
“She so piquantly exemplified daring to leave the rigid confined circle of orthodoxy and step into an area not defined and clearly dangerous. She stood to lose a great deal – in fact her entire committed life. She made her moves with such insouciance, with such a smiling air of; “look, it’s nothing much, try it,” that she gave numerous students and friends their freedom.” – Albert Einstein
In her essay “Art and Beauty in the Life of the Sister,” Corita wrote, “A sister is only different in the job she chooses to do. And to do this job she has promised to enjoy things fully and not to possess them for herself, to love people greatly and not to possess them, to unite with a group of people who want to do the same job which is too big for an individual or an individual family to do alone.”
Cancer is too big for me or my family to do alone, as well. Yet, I deny that. I act as if everything rolls along as it did before the diagnosis. Last weekend in Tampa after packing up the Fund for Teachers display, Mark and I had the opportunity over dinner to reflect on the past two months. “I don’t think anything has changed, really,” I said. “The kids adjusted to me wearing a wig (or not wearing one), breakfasts and lunches get made every day, the house is in tact…” Mark softly replied, “Everything has changed.”
I’m choosing to ponder this. I’ve been so bent on meeting pragmatic needs that I’m missing the energetic changes within my community. The word “gentle” appeared in my mind and I realize that while fight is vital for this period of life, there’s another side to the experience, as well, for me and others supporting me. This article in The New York Times stated it beautifully/painfully: “It’s not excess of love we regret at death’s door, it’s excess of severity. If we lived every day as the last day of our lives, the only quandary would be how to find the time to shower love on enough people.”
I am not at death’s door, thankfully, or even its driveway, but I am challenged to concentrate less on the real needs and more on the felt ones. Today I’m signing up for Instacart in the hopes of recapturing time at the grocery store to be more present at home and to listen, something the handwriting analyst at the Extra Yard for Teachers Summit gently observed “might be hard for me.” I’m sorry, what did you say?
For a primer on Sister Corita and her work/art, watch this thirty-minute documentary Sister Corita We Have No Art. If you don’t have that long, try CBS Sunday Morning’s five-minute piece Corita Kent: Mixing pop art with messages of love and hope.” And if ever in Los Angeles, visit the Corita Art Center, working to preserve and promote her art, teaching and passion for social justice.
You can see a gallery of Lavie Raven’s work, including time lapses of him painting the Extra Yard for Teachers murals, on his Facebook page.