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Did She Or Didn't She?

Only Artist Corita Kent Knew Whether the Image of Ho Chi Minh Was Emblazoned on Dot's Gas Tank

August 19, 2004

By Peter F. Stevens
Reporter Sta
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You could not avoid seeing it. Jutting near the Expressway in Dorchester, one of a pair of Boston Gas Tanks was adorned with the myriad-hued stripes of artist Corita Kent from the early 1970s to 1992. During the height of the Vietnam War, many observers noticed that the image appeared to bear a resemblance to North Vietnam's Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. The very thought outraged countless locals, fueling hot debate and calls for the painting to either be wiped away or "revised."

Did Corita Kent's rainbow tones blend into the image of Ho Chi Minh? No one will ever know, as the artist took the secret with her to the grave, in 1986. Boston Gas always denied that the painting was a portrait of anyone, let alone the Viet Cong leader.

Today, the controversial tank is gone, torn down in 1992 with its artwork. The colorful motif had become such a part of the landscape that the gas company, now called KeySpan, had the original design reproduced on the tank that remained. A second glance, however, by many people led to assertions that the company had softened the original so-called nose to a rounder version that looked less like Ho's pronounced profile.

The furor over the image first unfolded in 1971, when Boston Gas commissioned Kent to turn one of the company's distinctive natural-gas tanks into a massive canvas. No one could - or can - deny that her work proved an instant landmark. The world's largest copyrighted work of art, her painting spurred detractors to charge that if one studied the blue stripe's left side, the unmistakable visage of Ho Chi Minh's long nose and barbed goatee materialized. Furthermore, critics and supporters of the Vietnam conflict noted, Kent was an antiwar activist.

The woman at the center of the contretemps had once been Sister Mary Corita of the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Born in 1918 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Frances Kent was raised in Los Angeles and entered the order in 1936. She became Sister Mary Corita and graduated from Immaculate Heart College in 1936 as a teacher. For several years she taught elementary school in British Columbia; then, in 1946, she returned to her alma mater as an art instructor.

Always a passionate student of painting, she went from the classroom to a decidedly more hands-on approach by earning a master's degree in art history from the University of Southern California. Embracing the medium of silkscreen, she exhibited her first print in the same year as her USC graduation, 1951. According to the Corita Art Center, her "earliest works were largely iconographic &emdash; neo-gothic,' borrowing phrases and depicting images from the Bible. By the 1960s, she was using popular culture (such as song lyrics and advertising slogans) as raw material for her meaning-filled bursts of text and color."

In the 1960s, Sister Corita poured her considerable energy into another passion - the anti-war movement. She became an activist, using her art as a means of protest; her "Peace on Earth" 1965 Christmas Exhibit, at IBM's New York showroom, was deemed too "subversive" for display. She did tone it down, but later remarked, "I am not brave enough to not pay my income tax and risk going to jail. But I can say rather freely what I want to say with my art."

As head of the acclaimed Immaculate Heart College Art Department, Sister Corita won the admiration of such important cultural figures as Buckminster Fuller. He said that his visit to Sister Corita's department was "among the most fundamentally inspiring experiences of my life." Among Sister Corita's less artistic friends were such anti-war titans as the Berrigan Brothers.

The nun's art and activism led her to make a difficult decision in 1968. Having stopped wearing her habit in 1967 in favor of "civilian" clothing, she withdrew from the order and moved to Boston to devote herself to her work. Rapidly she rose in the ranks of the art world, commissions pouring in to her studio. Along with commercial works such as her ads for Westinghouse, she turned out an array of book covers, murals, and her own prints, her signature style featuring bold blends of color and a spiritual tinge. She also designed the Postal Service's first "Love Stamp."

In 1971, Kent received the commission to decorate the Dorchester tank. Her name became a flashpoint for controversy once her "rainbow of colors" was branded as a portrait of Ho Chi Minh by enraged backers of the Vietnam War and lauded by peace activists for the same reason. As to which camp was right, Sister Corita, now known as Corita Kent, kept her own counsel.

The artist died of cancer on September 18, 1986, and in 1992 the controversial gas tank was demolished. Corita Kent's 150-foot-high painting, however, was copied on the remaining tank - except, some say, for the so-called profile of Ho Chi Minh. Boston Gas offered an "explanation" that the rounded profile was Kent's "original design."

Peter F. Stevens's column on Dorchester history appears regularly in the Reporter.

 

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