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Art HERstory: Sister Gertrude Morgan

Last week, I highlighted Sister Corita Kent, the most famous nun of the 1960’s and one of the most famous graphic artists in the country. This week, I’m highlighting another woman of God whose future-primitive style can be compared to the child-like yet genius work of Jean Michel Basquiat.

Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980), a preacher, musician and poet, was a natural as an artist, although she got a late start, like many self-taught artists. Her paintings and drawings, often on found objects, are extremely religious yet flowing with happiness. It also offers a vivid self-portrait of herself and her life as a self-proclaimed missionary, as she appears in the majority of her figurative work. Read on…

Sister Gertrude Morgan singing and playing the tambourine, ca. 1973. Photo by Sylvia de Swaan

Sister Gertrude’s works are blasts of exuberant primary colors laced with a luscious, electric white paint (originally white shoe polish, according to one account) and often threaded with lines of text. Her repetitive patterns, especially dots, make her a prime candidate for the Pattern and Decoration School, though her subject matter is entirely different.

Charity Hospital, mixed mediums on eight cardboard strips shaped into a fan.

The seventh child of an Alabama farmer with a third-grade education, Gertrude Willliams married Will Morgan in 1928 and lived in Georgia. She received a call from God to preach in 1934. She experienced other revelations during her long career as a self-proclaimed missionary, which lasted until her death. In 1939, called again, she moved to New Orleans, where she set up a children’s home with two other women. They all wore black dresses with a white collar. What happened to the marriage is unknown.

She traveled in the south preaching and attending religious gatherings. Back in the French Quarter, she distributed food and clothing along with her other missionary duties.

Sunday June 9th 1967, crayon, acrylic, tempera, pen and ink, and pencil on paper.

God’s Greatest Hits, 1978, tempera on paper.

Around 1956, Sister Gertrude, already deeply involved in art-making as a religious poet and musician, received another revelation telling her to use art to illustrate her sermons. About a year later, she was called to become the “bride of Christ,” after which she dressed completely in white. She went out on her own to preach, eventually establishing her own mission. She sold her artworks to help support herself and her mission, made a record of her songs, and received national recognition for her art.

There’s An All Seeing Eye Watching You, acrylic and/or tempera, pencil and pen and ink on notebook paper.

“Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan,” curated by William A. Fagaly of the New Orleans Museum of Art, who knew Sister Gertrude during the last 12 years of her life, neatly lays out the development of her distinctive art. Her development, from copying from the Bible and possibly other religious texts to a signature style of her own, appears to have been rapid.

Book of Revelation, mixed mediums on window shade.

Drawn to the book of Revelation, like many other self-taught preacher-artists, her vision of a New Jerusalem is her most important theme. This vision translates in her paintings into images of multi-storied houses, gardens (which often resemble the one near her Everlasting Gospel Mission in New Orleans), and Sister Gertrude herself, dressed in white with “Dada Jesus.” The skies above are typically filled with multicolored angels.

Throne of God – Rev. 4, c.1960, acrylic on cardboard.

In 1974, she received another revelation to stop painting and to devote her time to poetry, which may have had something to do with difficulties with her eyes.

Sister Gertrude, a single-minded missionary, never took credit for her art. She maintained that everything she created came from God, just like the Reverend Howard Finster, John (J. B.) Murry and a host of other self-taught artists. She once said:

“He moves my hand. Do you think I would ever know how to do a picture like this by myself?”

New Jerusalem, 1960, acrylic and ink on cardboard.

New Jerusalem Court, Gloryland St., 1960, acrylic on board

New Jerusalem from the Prayer Room, acrylic and/or tempera, felt-tip ink and pencil on cardboard.

Sister Gertrude’s explosive folk art is celebrated on the museum circuit world-wide. But her one album, made in New Orleans in the 1960s, is one of black gospel music’s secret relics. Those recordings were unearthed and a limited number of copies were released to unanimous and widespread critical acclaim in 2003.

Ropeadope got a hold of the master rights and enlisted internationally acclaimed DJ and Producer King Britt to create an entirely new and ground breaking work, putting musical tracks behind the Sister’s previously unaccompanied vocals. In the studio for over 12 months working on this project, King hired a crew of stellar musicians to create the ultimate backing band and produce one of 2005’s most promising releases.

The cycle of ten songs mixes gospel hymns with funk and soul melodies and Britt’s deep percussive beats. The live ensemble toured this unique project with a full multimedia performance featuring live video accompaniment October through November of 2005.

Get the album and more info on this project at Ropeadope.com.

Sources & Links: SisterGertrude.com, Ropeadope,
TOOLS OF HER MINISTRY: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan

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