Profile: Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980)

Gertrude Morgan was a self-taught African-American artist, musician, poet and preacher. Born in LaFayette, Alabama, she relocated to New Orleans in 1939, where she lived and worked until her death in 1980. Sister Morgan achieved critical acclaim during her lifetime for her folk art paintings. Her work has been included in many groundbreaking exhibitions of visionary and folk art from the 1970s onwards.

Early life

Sister Morgan was born Gertrude Williams in Lafayette, Alabama, to mother Frances “Fannie” Williams and father Edward Williams. She was the seventh child of a poor rural family.

For reasons unknown, Sister Morgan left school before completing the third grade. Around 1917 her family moved to Columbus, Georgia,where she worked as a servant and nursemaid in a private home.

Artwork

In 1956, Sister Gertrude Morgan received another revelation from God urging her to paint. She understood the act of painting as a tool to be used in her service to the Lord, just as she used music in her street preaching. Sister Morgan used her early paintings as visual aids in her sermons and teachings, often with children. Her paintings depict religious subject matter almost exclusively, illustrating scenes from scripture. The Book of Revelation was of special significance, and provided subject matter that she would return to over and over again in her work.

Style

Similar to other self-taught artists, Sister Morgan used simple forms to depict the human figure. Her works are characterized by their lack of the use of formal techniques such as perspective and definition of light and shadow, giving them a flat, two dimensional quality. She painted and drew using acrylics, tempera, ballpoint pen, watercolors, crayon, colored and lead pencils and felt tip markers. Using inexpensive materials she had at hand, Sister Morgan painted on paper, toilet rolls, plastic pitchers, paper megaphones, scrap wood, lampshades, paper fans and styrofoam trays. The fact that she was self-taught, coupled with her choice of materials as well as her style and subject matter have led her to be characterized as a naive, folk, visionary, vernacular and outsider artist.

Subject matter

Originally conceiving her artworks as appendages to her gospel teachings, Sister Morgan’s paintings are often inscribed with passages from scripture and lyrics to popular gospel songs. Similarly, her paintings that document her childhood, early adulthood and first years in New Orleans are inscribed with the narratives of specific events, that often reference her evangelical activities.

Morgan particularly favored the Book of Revelations. William A. Fagaly writes, “The apocalyptic text of the Book of Revelation offers a plethora of visionary images: the Apocalypse and its four horsemen, the Antichrist, the Whore of Babylon, the Beast (with the mark 666), the heavenly book of seven seals, Armageddon, the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, the millennial kingdom of Christ on Earth, and the New Jerusalem.” It is for her paintings of New Jerusalem that Sister Morgan is most well known. The holy city of New Jerusalem “coming down from God out of heaven” was consistently depicted as a multi storey apartment building in her compositions. In some of her New Jerusalem paintings, a choir of interracial angels adorn the sky. The choir of angels frequent many of her paintings, sometimes as one of many elements in a composition, and other times as the sole subject.

Another recurring image in her work is a self-portrait as the Bride of Christ, riding with Jesus in an airplane. There is speculation that this references the hymn “Oh, Jesus Is My Air-o-plane”, recorded in 1930. Another hymn, “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me”, first published in 1871 by Edward Hopper, establishes a related Jesus-as-pilot motif.

Her later work is characterized by the dominance of the inscriptions. Her imagery becomes sparse and in some compositions non-existent.

Sister Morgan signed her paintings with many names, among them Black Angel, Lamb Bride, Nurse to Doctor Jesus, Everlasting Gospel Revelation Preacher, Bride of Christ and Little Ethiopia Girl.

Career

Around 1960, art dealer Larry Borenstein met Sister Morgan while she was preaching in the French Quarter. He invited her to perform and exhibit work in his art gallery after coming upon her shouting on a street corner with a paper megaphone. Borenstein cultivated an audience for her work by introducing her paintings to collectors, artists, museums and galleries. Lee Friedlander and Andy Warhol were both fans of her work. Warhol was an occasional correspondents, while Friedlander used Sister Morgan as a subject in his photographs.

In 1970 poet and performer Rod McKuen, a fan and collector of Morgan’s work used thirteen of her illustrations to accompany a book of Bible quotations, God’s Greatest Hits. It sold more than 300 000 copies. 

One of the tempera and paint illustrations from God’s Greatest Hits is held by the Smithsonian’s Evans-Tibbs Collection.

End of painting

Sister Morgan’s art brought her fame and notoriety, something she reportedly both enjoyed and felt conflicted about. In 1973 she announced that the Lord had ordered her to cease painting in order to concentrate on her preaching and poetry. ‘Painting now? Oh no,’ she reportedly said in 1974. I’m way too worried. Worrying about what time it is and praying on people’s cases.'”

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