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TOOLS OF HER MINISTRY: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan
November 14, 2004- January 16, 2005
The first comprehensive retrospective exhibition of the work of Sister Gertrude Morgan is being held through January 16, 2005 at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Born in 1900, Sister Gertrude Morgan was a missionary, preacher, artist, musician, poet and writer who lived and worked in New Orleans in the 1960s and '70s. Her legendary sermons, street-corner preaching and unique artwork made her one of the most revered characters in recent American folk art history. (right: Sister Gertrude Morgan (American, 1900-1980); New Jerusalem from the Prayer Room; n.d.; acrylic and/or tempera, felt-tip ink, and pencil on cardboard; 22 x 28 inches; Collection of the Jaffe Family. The compositions illustrating the New Jerusalem are distinguishable because they all feature a multistoried rectangular structure resembling an apartment building. The 21st chapter of Revelation describes the New Jerusalem as a holy city "coming down from God out of heaven." " ... the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." (Rev. 21:3-4) This is the New Jerusalem painting Sister Morgan chose to exhibit in the Prayer Room of her Everlasting Gospel Mission.)
Self-taught folk artists, or outsider artists have no formal artistic training. Instead, they choose to work outside the artistic mainstream, deriving subject matter from spiritual inspiration, personal surroundings and life experiences. Frequently, like Sister Gertrude, these self-taught artists create intuitively and spontaneously, often recycling found objects and materials into their artwork.
The exhibition, comprising approximately 100 paintings and decorated objects, focuses on her artwork which she utilized as a tool for her ministry as an evangelist street preacher. Organized by the American Folk Art Museum in New York, it reveals new facts of her life and uncovers art never seen in public.
Sister Gertrude possessed a profound religious faith. Her many talents served as a vehicle for, and material extensions of, her calling to serve God and spread the gospel. Curator William A. Fagaly, NOMA's Françoise Billion Richardson curator of African art and former assistant director for art, organized the show and wrote the exhibition catalogue. Fagaly, who knew Sister Gertrude over the last decade of her life, used his extensive artistic knowledge of Sister Gertrude in creating the exhibition. He notes in his catalogue essay that a chronology of Morgan's artistic output is problematic because she rarely dated her work. "Morgan did not conceive of the paintings she was making as 'art' but as tools of her ministry, so it is likely that it simply did not occur to her to date them-it was not important to the message," he writes. The exhibition is organized along chronological lines, with paintings and objects divided into early, middle and late periods, as determined by style, medium and content. Visitors will get a sense of the artist's personal presence through documentary photographs and a recording of her music. (left: Sister Gertrude Morgan (American, 1900-1980); Dan. 7.1; n.d.; crayon, pencil, ball-point ink, and watercolor on cardboard; 9 1/4 x 16 1/4 inches; Collection of the Jaffe Family.)
From the time she received the first of several divine revelations, Sister Gertrude took to the streets to testify. Transcending the cultural barriers between art, institutional religion and individual spirituality, Morgan's life and art combine the African American tradition of autonomous religious expression with a remarkable inherent artistic sensibility. Her actions were not uncommon; there were hundreds of African American women who felt the call to preach and founded their own independent missions during the great urban migrations of the 1920s.
Sister Gertrude arrived in New Orleans in 1939. There she established an orphanage with two other women and preached tirelessly in the streets, raising money by singing and playing guitar. Seventeen years later, she turned to art-making in earnest and moved her missionary operations to a small white-frame house "back-a-town " in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, down river from the French Quarter. She christened the house the Everlasting Gospel Mission, and it was from this space that she created her art and conducted prayer services. Around this same time she also had a revelation that she was to be the bride of Christ, a calling she took with great seriousness, dressing solely in white garments from that day forward. (right: Sister Gertrude Morgan (American, 1900-1980); New Jerusalem with Jesus Is My Airplane; n.d.; acrylic and/or tempera, pencil and ball-point ink on paper; 18 x 20 inches; Collection of Christopher and Jane Botsford. Inscription: Jesus is air Plane / he hold the world in / his hand he guide / me through the land / lord Jesus you is / my air Plane / sister Gertrude morgan / missionary / Everlasting gospel teacher / Rev. 14:6)
Sister Gertrude Morgan's works primarily illustrated specific scriptures from the Old and New Testaments and served as a visual aid to gospel services she conducted; the Book of Revelation, with its vivid imagery, assumed a prominent role in these teachings. Artworks were given away to her congregants, and many were sold through the Borenstein gallery in the French Quarter. The sale of her artworks kept her mission operating, but Sister Morgan was adamant that the images were divinely inspired; it was from Jesus that she received her talents, and it was He who continued to provide guidance and nourishment: "Just be sure and give Jesus credit for what I do. He's the one that deserves all the praise. He's the one that made me do it." Sister Gertrude Morgan's artwork was an integral component and tool of her ministry.
TOOLS OF HER MINISTRY: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan is accompanied by a fully illustrated book published by the American Folk Art Museum, New York, and Rizzoli International Publications, New York, and available in the Museum Shop. The 120-page, full-color catalog-the first devoted to the artist-accompanies the exhibition. In addition to an updated biography, William Fagaly's principal essay includes an in-depth stylistic analysis of her art. New Orleans journalist and historian Jason Berry describes the bohemian atmosphere in the French Quarter during Morgan's day. A third essay, by art historian Helen M. Shannon, executive director of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, provides a discussion of possible cultural and visual sources fore the artist's work. The catalogue includes color plates of more than two-thirds of the works of art in the exhibition.
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