One of the most interesting and original self-taught artists of the Twentieth Century, Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980) was a painter, evangelist, musician and poet who used her diverse talents to convey her profound religious beliefs. Transcending cultural barriers between art, institutional religion and individual spirituality, her art combined the Black tradition of autonomous religious expression with a remarkable inherent artistic sensibility.
Diligent and resourceful, Morgan also fashioned and decorated the cardboard megaphones she used when preaching (such as “Jesus is my air plane”) and hand stitched the individually decorated fans she offered visitors to her mission.
Morgan believed that her creative genius was God-given and that this mandated that she use it to serve the Lord and spread the word. Most of her paintings, therefore, were on religious themes, often interpretations of passages from the Old and New Testaments. She frequently wrote messages or quoted scriptural passages in her pieces, texts that play central roles in the total composition.
Taking up serious art in her 50s, Morgan used poster paint, acrylics, crayon, pastels and watercolors to create images on paper, plastic, cardboard, scrap wood and utilitarian objects, such as lampshades, pillows, wooden trays, guitar cases and even a toilet paper roll. “Self Portrait in White with Jesus,” a spectacularly painted guitar case, demonstrates her penchant for covering entire surfaces with images.
The exhibition consists of 100 paintings and decorated objects on which Morgan painted, many loaned from private collections. The curatorial team was led by William A. Fagaly, formerly assistant curator for art at NOMA, and Francoise Bilon, NOMA’s Richardson curator of African art, in cooperation with Brooke Davis Anderson, director and curator of the American Folk Art Museum’s Contemporary Center. Fagaly, the leading expert on Morgan’s life and work and a personal friend of the artist, wrote major parts of the informative and attractive exhibition catalog.
Born in 1900 in rural Alabama, Williams was the seventh child of parents who were probably the children of slaves. In addition to showing strong religious convictions growing up, she recalled doing drawings in the ground with a stick as a child.
When Morgan was in her late teens, she moved with her family to Columbus, Ga., where she lived for 21 years. She became an active member of Rose Hill Memorial Baptist Church, the beginning of her all-consuming dedication to God. Several paintings in the exhibition recalling the brick church and its leaders put one in mind of portrayals by another self-trained African American artist, Horace Pippin.
In 1928, she married Will Morgan, with whom she lived for a decade in Columbus. “I was havin’ a good time,” she recalled, “goin’ about my business, goin’ to the picture show and I liked to dance.” “Canty,” a small self-portrait painted years later, shows her dressed in black with white accents, accompanied by a text in which she wrote that “I cant hardly Realize this is me. Little Gertrude Williams.”
While sitting in her kitchen in Columbus in 1934, she experienced what she considered the most important day of her life. She had the first of several revelations. She said that she “heard a great strong Voice speak to me and said…I have chosen thee…I had to answer to my calling and one day give up and pack up and go.”
Leaving her husband behind, Morgan moved around, eventually making her way to New Orleans, which she dubbed “the headquarters of sin,” in 1939. Soon after arriving there Morgan teamed up with two other religious-minded Black women who became followers of the Holiness and Sanctified movement. They preached to passersby on the street and established an orphanage.
As documented in the appealing “The Barefoot Prophetesses,” they wore black robes with white collars and sashes. Morgan included herself, as she often did in her pictures, as the right hand figure in this charming vignette, now owned by the American Folk Art Museum.
After years of preaching in the streets, raising money by singing and playing the guitar or tambourine, she struck out on her own. Morgan sited her missionary operations in a modest, white-framed shotgun house in New Orleans’ predominately Black Ninth Ward. Christening the house the Everlasting Gospel Mission, she used this sacred space to conduct prayer services and create art.
Like Grandma Moses and other self-taught artists, Morgan began to paint late in life, at age 56, 17 years after her arrival in New Orleans. Rather than being inspired by looking at other art and trying to emulate it, she was primarily influenced by illustrations in her Bible. This pious woman maintained that her talent came directly from God. “He moves my hand,” Morgan said. “Do you think I would ever know how to do a picture like this by myself?”
What sets Morgan apart from others in the field and makes her oeuvre intriguing is her mastery of vivid color, her idiosyncratic compositions and the integration of text and image in her work, all expressed in a distinctive style that evolved over nearly two decades.
Basing her artwork on the Bible, a fundamental document of African American culture, she created a memorable body of work. “Hers is truly a vernacular rendering of the image and text of Bible literature, indicating its significance for the visual arts of African American culture, comparable to its impact on the sung and spoken word,” writes Helen Shannon, director of the New Jersey State Museum, in the exhibition catalog.
Well along in her New Orleans years, Morgan had a revelation that she was to be the bride of Christ, a message she took very seriously, dressing only in white thereafter. Her immaculate all white clothing brought her attention; she made a striking figure as she preached on the streets of the French Quarter and in her mission. She also painted the Everlasting Gospel Mission white, inside and out, and covered all the furnishings, and even her Bible, in white.
“[T]heres an al seeing eye watching you” is an almost surreal depiction of a huge human eye peering out from the center of a written text. It must have been a riveting sight when mounted in the prayer room of her mission.
Since there was no air conditioning in her mission, Morgan made and decorated fans for her congregants to help them bear New Orleans’ legendary heat and humidity during services. Several are in the exhibition, including the gaily painted “charity hospital 523,2311” and “PARADiSE: I no we can Reign here.”
“Sunday June 9th, 1967” commemorating Morgan’s tenth anniversary of teaching children, shows her wearing a white crownlike hat and carrying a purse, umbrella and large drawing portfolio.
One of Morgan’s major obsessions was the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. In it, St John records that he “saw a new heaven and a new earth…I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of the heavens from God…” In her architecturally oriented New Jerusalem paintings, she utilized a high-keyed palette to depict multistoried buildings and groups of white-robed figures drifting through the landscape.
In “New Jerusalem,” from the Folk Art Museum’s collection, a ribbon of white on which Biblical excerpts are written bisects a portrayal of the holy city as a cluster of buildings in a broad landscape setting. The intensely hued “New Jerusalem with Jesus in my Airplane” is a knockout.
Often buildings representing the New Jerusalem have their facades removed to reveal lively activities inside, as in “There’s a Bright Crown Waitang for Me.” Meanwhile, a host of interracial angels float among the structures.
A highlight of the show is the large, panoramic and ambitious “New Jerusalem from the Prayer Room,” featuring the usual tall, rectangular apartment building surrounded by a host of angels. In the left foreground is a wedding party, presumably featuring the artist and Christ. Morgan hung this work in her mission’s prayer room.
Another standout, “New Jerusalem Court,” created with acrylic and/or tempera and pencil on a window shade, measures a sizable 13 by 71 inches. Here, the holy city is represented by a picturewide group of attached buildings.
“Even though Morgan represented this subject [New Jerusalem] many times, each one is unique in composition, and the image evolved over the years,” says Fagaly.
The written word assumed increasing prominence in Morgan’s later works, particularly in ambitious compositions with copious texts and images illustrating chapters of the Bible. Designed for use in her prayer services, she called them “charters.”
Two standouts are large, complex, double-sided compositions on window shades: “The Book of Revelation,” measuring 3 by 6 feet, and “The Revelation of Saint John the Divine,” which is 4 by 7 feet. “Undoubtedly, these two masterworks are the crowning achievement of Sister Morgan’s career as an artist,” writes Fagaly. It is hard to disagree with this evaluation of these sprawling, narrative works.
Although she was highly concerned about the Devil and his evil influence, “Ephesians 1: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12” is a rare image in which Morgan depicted him in her works. Two modest figures in the upper left occupy only a small portion of this 28- by 22-inch work on cardboard. The rest is covered with excerpts from the New Testament’s Epistle to the Ephesians, suggesting that it dates from the early 1970s. It is in NOMA’s collection.
This was shortly before Morgan announced that the Lord had commanded her to stop making art. Thereafter she devoted herself to writing poetry.
Morgan was clearly a memorable figure in person. “Like most who were acquainted with her,” says Fagaly, “I was awed by her powerful presence and intimidated by her dogged determination to spread the gospel. She had a strong effect on people. She knew she was not to be deterred in her life’s mission.”
Large blowups of documentary photographs of Sister Morgan in action convey the expressiveness of her face and the intensity of her persona. A recording of her music and artifacts, such as Bibles and letters, help put her in context.
In 17 years Morgan created about 700 artworks as part of her mission to celebrate the teachings of Jesus Christ. They were, indeed, the tools she chose to fulfill her heavenly calling.
By 1970, Morgan’s art had begun to attract national attention. Her work was included in group exhibitions in California, New York and Louisiana. In 1982, two years after her death, more than 40 of her works – the largest representation of any artist – were included in a trailblazing exhibition, “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
With the current show, at last, Sister Gertrude Morgan gets the full treatment of a first-rate, solo display backed by a scholarly publication. Both do justice to one of the most intriguing artists in Twentieth Century American art.
The 108-page, lavishly illustrated catalog is appealing and insightful. In the major essay, Fagaly provides full biographical background on the artist, analyzes her style and positions Morgan’s work within the framework of African American religious expression. New Orleans writer/historian Jason Berry explores the bohemian atmosphere of the French Quarter in Morgan’s day. Shannon examines cultural and visual sources in the artist’s work.
Numerous color plates beautifully augment the useful text. There is an exhibition checklist, chronology of Morgan’s life and a bibliography.
Published by Rizzoli International Publications in association with the American Folk Art Museum, this handsome volume will be a welcome addition to the libraries of all interested in American art, especially of self-taught artists. It is a good buy at $35 (hardcover).
The New Orleans Museum of Art is in City Park at 1 Diboll Circle. For information, 504-488-2631 or www.noma.org.