Sister Gertrude's heavenly art begins tour

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  March 5, 2004 at 12:17 PM
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NEW YORK, March 5 (UPI) -- The art of New Orleans' legendary black gospel minister Sister Gertrude Morgan has begun a three-city tour at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, giving a wider public audience a chance to appreciate one of America's most accomplished intuitive painters.

Although an unschooled artist whose work never rose above the level generally referred to as "naïve," Morgan (1900-1980) had a rich imagination, an emphatic style, a penchant for stimulating color, and a talent for mixing her pictures with biblical texts that demand the viewer's full attention. The show can be seen in New York through Sept. 26 and later in New Orleans and Chicago.

Reared in Columbus, Ga., Morgan was a third grade dropout who became an active Baptist in her late teens and experienced the first of many revelations from God in 1934. That experience called her to the ministry, and she moved in 1939 to New Orleans, which she called "the headquarters of sin." She established a mission and home for orphans with the help of followers of the Holiness and Sanctified movement, an African-American faith.

Later she claimed to have been selected as a bride of Christ, assumed all-white attire and presided over the Everlasting Gospel Mission in a typical Louisiana shotgun house where she planted a lawn of four-leaf clovers. She began painting in earnest in 1956 to help maintain the mission and stopped abruptly in 1974, saying she was commanded to do so by the Lord.

"Painting now?" she remarked at the time. "Oh no, I'm too worried. Worrying about what time it is, and praying on people's cases. ...You don't have to look far these days for fire and brimstone. Tell 'em God's wife told you that."

Beginning in 1960, she exhibited and sold her art and sang and read her poetry for audiences, recording at least one album, in art dealer Larry Borenstein's French Quarter gallery (now Preservation Hall, the jazz mecca), but she came to believe in 1974 that the fame and income her artwork provided was unacceptable to God. She vowed she would concentrate solely on her poetry, which she did for the last 20 years of her life.

However, a small exhibit of her work at New York's Folk Art Museum in 1973 introduced her paintings to a national audience, placing her high on the art world's list of native "outsider" painters.

During her painting years she created some 700 artworks that ranged from works on paper and cardboard, on megaphones she used for street corner preaching, on her guitar case, and on Styrofoam food trays, lamp shades and blocks of scrap wood, all of which are represented in the exhibition. She made cardboard fans for her congregation and dotted them with color as a French Post-Impressionist pointillist artist might do.

She used pencils, ballpoint pens and almost any kind of paint she could get her hands on, preferably acrylic, but she was particularly fond of drawing with crayons. Occasionally she introduced photographs into her paintings, creating a form of collage. Her favorite subjects were the heavenly New Jerusalem described in the Biblical Book of Revelation, and she included her own likeness in many of her works.

Among Morgan's masterworks on display are a large depiction of New Jerusalem as a 12-story apartment block housing both black and white angels, some of whom are shown playing Ping-Pong, and a piece called "The Throne of God," a major composition based on an apocalyptic vision in Revelation down to the last detail, including 24 seated elders, seven lamps, and four beasts "full of eyes."

Other major works show her sharing a throne with Jesus and Jesus in the cockpit of his airplane. She also painted an aerial view of her New Orleans neighborhood from directly above, although she never flew in a plane, and added a vignette showing God listening to Morgan playing her guitar.

"Jesus Betrayed by a Kiss," notable for the animated facial expressions of the cast of characters in the Garden of Gethsemane, brings to mind the paintings of the late-Medieval Italian master, Giotto, although Morgan was totally ignorant of art history. Another work with Medieval overtones is "Ezekiel's Wheel," showing a green and orange wheel in the sky with an adoring angel.

The show includes a booth with earphones for listening to recordings of Morgan singing in an incantatory style accompanying herself on a tambourine, two books published by Random House in 1970 with her illustrations for poet Rod McKuen's text, signs she made for her mission with such misspelled messages as "There's an Al-Seeing Eye Watching You," and a display of personal items including a Bible and notebooks filled with poetry.

Morgan died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 80. She had a typically exuberant New Orleans funeral and was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave outside the city near the New Orleans airport. The only thing missing in the show would seem to be a painting of Morgan making her getaway to heaven in an airplane.

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