Published: February 10, 2004
-“Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan” is the first comprehensive traveling exhibition devoted to the self-taught artist. It opens February 25 at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53 Street, and will run through September 26. It will travel to the New Orleans Museum of Art, November 13, 2004-January 16, 2005 and then to Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago, February 11-May 28, 2005.
Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980) was an African American self-taught artist, street missionary, musician, healer and poet who used her diverse abilities as a vehicle for her profound religious faith.
Comprising approximately 100 paintings and decorated objects (fans, megaphone, lamp shades, guitar case), the exhibition has been selected by William Fagaly, former assistant director for art and Françoise Billon Richardson curator of African Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art, in cooperation with Brooke Davis Anderson, director and curator of the American Folk Art Museum’s Contemporary Center.
The exhibition will document both Morgan’s artistic career and her participation in a circle of jazz musicians, artists and intellectuals in New Orleans. Although Morgan seldom dated her work, the presentation will be divided chronologically into early, middle and late sections, as determined by style, medium and content, as well as arranged by themes such as “Jesus is My Airplane,” “New Jerusalem” and “Alphabets.” Morgan’s “Charters” series will also be featured. These large, friezelike, narrative paintings are illustrated with detailed depictions of consecutive chapters from the Book of Revelation.
Born in 1900 in Lafayette, Ala., Morgan was the seventh child of Frances and Edward Williams. As a member of the Baptist church, she showed strong religious convictions as a youth, receiving her first revelation to preach in 1934.
Several years later Sister Gertrude received her second call and left Georgia to settle in New Orleans in 1939, “the headquarters of sin,” where she became a familiar figure on the streets of the city’s French Quarter. She would set up her paintings illustrating passages from the Bible and preach the Gospel to passersby, often singing in a deep voice and accompanying herself on guitar or tambourine. Donations and the sale of her artwork helped to support Sister Gertrude’s Everlasting Gospel Mission, the modest shotgun house in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward where she held nightly prayer meetings and other services.
Morgan began painting in earnest around 1956 (at age 56), stating that the Lord had commanded her to teach the gospel in a different manner. Her earliest work was executed in crayon in a subdued range of autumnal colors. In 1957, the artist had another vision that revealed she had been chosen to become a bride of Christ. After that, she dressed only in white to symbolize her spiritual marriage, gradually transforming both the exterior and interior of the French Quarter mission with white paint and furnishings. In her paintings she often adorned herself either in a white bridal gown or a nurse’s uniform. According to Fagaly, Sister Morgan saw herself as a sort of spiritual nurse.
In the 1960s, Morgan’s compositions became larger and more complex and she began to use a wider variety of media, including acrylic, tempera and watercolors. Her later work employs highly complex compositions populated with crowds of figures that seem to float heavenward. By 1970, Morgan’s work was included in exhibitions in California, New York and Louisiana. In 1982, two years after her death, more than 40 of Morgan’s works were included in the exhibition “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
A 120-page illustrated color catalog, published by Rizzoli International Publications, New York, in association with the American Folk Art Museum, is the first solely devoted to the artist. It has an essay and a biography by William Fagaly, and essays by Helen M. Shannon, director of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton and a specialist in African American art and New Orleans writer and historian Jason Berry.
Museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 10:30 am to 5:30 pm; Friday until 7:30 pm. Admission is $9; students and seniors $7. Admission is free on Friday from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. For information, visit www.folkartmu seum.org or call 212-265-1040.
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