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TOOLS OF HER MINISTRY: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan
November 14, 2004- January 16, 2005
The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan
Sister Gertrude Morgan was a self-taught artist. While a chronology of Morgan's artistic output is possible through stylistic analysis, it cannot be definitive and precise, for while she almost always signed her artworks, she rarely dated them. 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.
Morgan reports that she began producing art in 1956, but the lack of dates on most of the works, which would be an important guide, presents one impediment. Further adding to the difficulty is the fact that those few works with dates do not necessarily correspond to a stylistic pattern. From this it could be concluded that her style wavered and did not conform to a logical and convenient stylistic progression. With these caveats in mind, however, a rough outline can be attempted. (right: Sister Gertrude Morgan (American, 1900-1980); Jesus is my air Plane he hold the world in his hand; n.d.; acrylic and/or tempera, pencil, and ballpoint ink on paper; 18 3/4 x 4 1/2 inches diam.; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, puchase with The Marshall Hahn Folk Art Acquisition Fund for the T. Marshall Hahn Collection, 2000.10. Inscription: Jesus is my air Plane holds / the world in his hand he guides / me through the land / lord Jesus is my air Plane we are / striving to Promise land in / that Kindom land.)
The earliest works, all unsigned, are generally characterized as having solely biblical subjects and having been executed mostly in crayon on cardboard. They do not feature integrated texts beyond descriptive titles or labels, but they do often bear writing, sometimes profuse, on the reverse. Occasionally, the artist seems to have changed her mind and completely obliterated inscriptions on the front with crayon, as is evident in Joseph Sold into Egypt. Notably, the figural forms in these drawings bear none of the sophistication found in later works.
In general, Morgan's style cannot be traced to any particular influences, although there are a few exceptions in early works that evolved from the crayon pieces, with images that may have been copied, traced, or inspired by other illustrations, most likely from illustrated Bibles or religious publications. They display a more refined palette, with more complex compositions with a remarkable sophistication of depth of field, indicating a foreground, middle ground, and background.
An extraordinary painting on cardboard, The Saints Eternal Home Rev 21.1, demonstrates a facility with liquid media using wax crayon. The paint is applied in layers of carefully dabbled wash, creating a luminosity and a heavenly quality appropriate for its subject matter, from the twenty-first chapter of Revelation. ("And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.") This piece and similar works feature well-defined animal and figural forms and possess a tentative but more exacting draftsmanship than that of the earliest crayons.
The presumed tracing or copying of forms actually resulted in some interesting spatial relationships not evident in later works, which are organized on a more conventional plane. Self-portraits are rare among these first works. (right: Sister Gertrude Morgan (American, 1900-1980); The Barefoot Prophetesses; n.d.; watercolor, acrylic and/or tempera and pencil on paper; 11 1/2 x 16 inches; American Folk Art Museum, New York, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin C. Branan; 1983.14-4.)
Growing out of these early crayons and watercolors is a style characterized by ever more complex compositions, populated with a greater number of figures that are delineated with more definition. Inscriptions also began to become more integral to the compositions. Crayon and watercolors were combined with tempera and/or acrylic paints that offered a new opacity and vibrancy, demonstrating Morgan's fine color sense. The compositions contain clusters or rows of figures in tiers and a great deal more scripted text throughout. In most of these works, the figures are not grounded on a plane, but seem to float.
These early works are followed by a group of paintings that could be characterized as being of the middle period, in which the artist's technique becomes more painterly, with looser brushwork. There appears a new exuberance: raw, brighter acrylic and/or tempera paints are applied without mixing, and with seemingly more spontaneous brushstrokes. At the same time, the compositions become even more complex, with an obsessive filling in of the total picture plane. The paintings of this period include the spectacularly compounded New Jerusalem paintings, which she reported to have begun painting in 1966; this is the main body of work for which Sister Gertrude Morgan is most well known.
The loud and brassy style is in marked contrast with the early, rather quiet and tentative crayons and watercolors. Her painterly skies often consist of myriad horizontal streaks of bright color, particularly oranges, reds, and yellows. (left: Sister Gertrude Morgan (American, 1900-1980); there's an al seeing eye watching you; n.d.; acrylic and/or tempera, pencil and pen and ink on notebook paper; 6 7/8 x 11 inches; Collection of the Jaffe Family. Inscription: SiNG / All along on the Road to / the souls true aboad there's / an eye watching you every step / that you take this great eye is awake / there"s an eye / watching you / Right / thru / day / the / your / mind / watching you / chorus you persue watching you / Theres an al seeing eye / watching you)
Morgan's choice of subject matter in the middle period conformed to two general themes-biblical and autobiographical-that often overlapped in a single composition. Self-portraits abound in the art, but works revealing her activities in Alabama and Georgia and her early days in New Orleans are less common, and provide rare insight. Most often she painted herself in the white frock, white cap, white stockings, and white shoes that she wore every day from about 1957 to her death in 1980. When coupled with her groom-"dada Jesus" or "dada God" (or both)-she is adorned with bridal veil and bouquet. In one repeated motif, she and Jesus fly side by side in an open, birdlike airplane, illustrating her personal credo, "Jesus is my air Plane." She explained the image as follows: "I Realize time is flying, as Jesus had me to give a message to the world telling them time is flying, and after that he taken my hand and Begin to draw a air Plane, and him and I in the Plane."
The events of the Book of Revelation, perhaps the best known of all Christian writings, assumed prominence in Sister Morgan's preaching and artwork. Although modern eschatologists warn that these writings should not be interpreted literally or as foretelling the future, but accepted as an allegory of the ever-present struggle between good and evil and between organized religion and the secular world, Sister Gertrude Morgan, like most Evangelicals, took the words literally, faithfully delineating them in her works without any interpretation. 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. The last of these held the greatest interest for Sister Morgan. (right: Sister Gertrude Morgan (American, 1900-1980); PARADiSE: I no we can Reign here (recto); n.d.; acrylic and/or tempera and ballpoint ink on cardboard cut-out; 11-1/2 x 9 1/2 inches; Collection of Robert A. Roth. Inscription: 2COR 12.4 / I no we can Reign here I COR 13.37 / we was taught that we must / [illegible] and go may Be your here / I COR 15.51.8 / I shew your Paradise / St. / Luke / 23.43 / Rev / 11.15 / Rev 1 live Rev 5 / the Revelation of / Jesus Christ / I gave her space / REV 2 / no repent of her fornicat / ion and she / Repented not / REV 3 / Behold I stand / at the / door and Knock / and I saw in the / Right hand of him / that sat on the throne / a Book written / After this I looked / and Behold a / door opened / unto / me / REV 4 / SISTER / GERTRUDE / MORGAN)
Text began to assume prominence in Morgan's later works, the inscriptions no longer simply annotating the images-rather the images became shorthand illustrations of the text. Two large, complex, and highly saturated double-sided compositions on window shades-Book of Revelation, measuring 3 by 4 feet, and The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, measuring 4 by 7 feet-epitomize this period. Undoubtedly, these two masterworks are the crowning achievement of Morgan's career as an artist. These "charters," as she referred to them, dared to copy out and illustrate most of, if not the entire text, of the Book of Revelation, the central thesis of her mission. They were meant as teaching aids. Several tiers of intertwined text, complete with chapter headings, are interspersed with small, tightly drawn images-a medley of miniature motifs found repeatedly in the larger body of her work. Smaller charters most likely number fewer than a dozen and contain only portions of this last book of the Scriptures, but they are composed in a similar fashion and are no less sensational.
In the late works in which text predominates, lines and splashes of color are sometimes added between rows of written text and between individual words, demonstrating a consuming need to fill empty space. Sentences and phrases generally wrap around the illustrations in columns, but in many cases words are interrupted by images, as though in her great haste to commit her thoughts to paper she could not be hindered by the composition. Conceivably, Morgan's most enchanting works, both in design and content, are the six known "alphabet" compositions-four of which are devoid of any imagery-which consist of original verses beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Between tight bands of script on horizontal sheets of paper, she freely applied dots and dashes of color to create a lyrical waltz dancing across the page. These alphabet poems provide a rewarding glimpse into the artist's thought process, as they ramble on in a disjointed fashion much like her verbal preaching.
From the scores of people who knew the artist in the 1960s and 1970s, and from this writer's own experiences, it is safe to say that Sister Gertrude Morgan was a truly charismatic individual. Those who met her agree that they were in the presence of someone special. Her gravely, alto voice was strong and commanding, her body frame solid, her countenance stern and determined. She wouldn't just preach or sing the gospel, she would shout the gospel. She was strong willed, not afraid to stand up to the devil of her religion. Upon examination of her life, it is absolutely clear that she was a person of dogged focus and remarkable direction. For Sister Morgan, working for her Lord Jesus and His teachings was a full-time commitment-it occupied her twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week: "I been laboring on hedge and highroad trying to get people to get on that clean train for Jesus; I got a lot of people whose cases I'm praying on and sometimes it just gets me all wore out, but you know, you got to swing, you got to push to keep out the devil." (right: Sister Gertrude Morgan (American, 1900-1980); there's a Bright crown Waitang for me; n.d.; acrylic and/or tempera, pencil, and ballpoint ink on wood panel; 14 7/8 x 22 inches; Collection of Siri von Reis. Inscription: Sing there's a Bright crown / Waitang for me Repeat 3 times / in the new Jerusalem / Rev. 21 / Sister Gertrude MORGAN)
Sister Gertrude Morgan rose from a life of obscurity and disadvantage to touch many people's lives. Her later life's mission was to celebrate the teachings of Jesus Christ. She dutifully served him through personal sacrifice, committed to warning people of the presence of sin and evil and imploring them to push it from their lives. Her artwork and musical performances were the tools she chose to fulfill that heavenly calling. The message constitutes her legacy, and the world is a richer place for her presence. Even today, the body of work Sister Gertrude Morgan created continues to carry out her exalted mission.
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