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TOOLS OF HER MINISTRY: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan
November 14, 2004- January 16, 2005
Sister Gertrude Morgan: A Biography
Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980) 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.
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.
Sister Gertrude Morgan was born in 1900 to farmers and raised in Alabama, spending time in the cities of Lafayette, Louisiana and Opelika and Girard, Alabama. She rose from a life of obscurity and disadvantage to touch many people's lives. In her late teens, she moved with her mother and seven siblings from Girard, now part of Phenix City, Ala. on the banks of the Chatahoochee River, across the river to Columbus, Georgia. There, she turned to religion, becoming an active member of the Rose Hill Memorial Baptist Church. This became the genesis of her all-consuming commitment to God.
At age 28, Gertrude married a man named Will Morgan. In 1934, she said she received her first of a number of milestone revelations from her Lord over the years-this one instructing her to leave her so-called wild and secular youth behind and sing and preach the gospel. Three years later, she received another revelation, and in 1938, embarked on a journey that first led her back to Opelika and Montgomery, Ala., where she worked as a nursemaid, and then to New Orleans. Her life before she moved to New Orleans has little correlation with her life afterward. Her later life's mission was to celebrate the teachings of Jesus Christ, using her artwork and musical performances to fulfill that heavenly calling.
For her to leave behind her husband and relatives in Columbus after 21 years took great courage and conviction and was, undoubtedly, a frightening yet emboldening experience. Although she never revealed why she moved to New Orleans, one could surmise that because of the city's reputation for sin and evil, she may have felt that New Orleans was where she could do the most good.
Now a self-proclaimed Sister, Gertrude Morgan arrived in New Orleans on Feb. 26, 1939 after passing through the relatively rural neighborhood of Gentilly on the city's northeastern outskirts. There she encountered two other missionaries, Mother Margaret Parker and Sister Cora Williams, and the three of them quickly found the common bond-religion-and a common purpose-the establishment of a mission and a home for children in Parker's 18-room house on Gentilly's Flake Avenue. As adherents of the Holiness and Sanctified faith, a loosely organized African-American sect that emphasizes communication with God through music, song and dance, they raised money by performing on the streets of New Orleans.
After many years of preaching on the streets and helping to sustain the mission, Sister Gertrude Morgan realized that art could play an important role in her life's work. About the same time, she received another divine revelation: she was selected, she said, to be the bride of Christ.
Sister Gertrude left the Flake Avenue house in May 1957 after Sister Williams' death. After drifting from house to house in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, she moved in with elderly widow Jennie Johnson between 1963 and 1965 at 5444 North Dorgenois. This home became the base of operations for her missionary work, and ultimately she christened the simple, white shotgun house the Everlasting Gospel Mission. It was from this sanctuary that Sister Morgan conducted her prayer services, with the tools of her ministry at hand: her Bible, paintings, a pointer (with which she could also tap out a rhythm), a tambourine, and a paper megaphone (hand-painted with biblical imagery), as if her commanding voice could not reach the four corners of the small room.
Sister Morgan's performances possessed a unique power to intoxicate and mesmerize, but often were difficult to listen to for an extended period. Singing and playing the guitar, beating a tambourine or clapping wooden blocks together, and chanting, she would repeat words like "power," "hallelujah,:" and "amen" over and over in an improvisational manner. This seemingly endless repetition is a practice that most likely has evolved from African origins.
About 1960 while preaching in the French Quarter, she met well-known local entrepreneur and art dealer E. Lorenz "Larry" Borenstein-an encounter that would forever change her life. She showered her work and performed in his art gallery, Associated Artists Studio, located at 726 St. Peter St. Some of her works were displayed in open bins at the gallery, but most were framed by Borenstein in inexpensive frames. The unlikely association between the educated, wealthy white Jewish businessman, and the mostly uneducated, poor black Christian missionary lasted 20 years, serving both well. Borenstein looked after her welfare and attended to her simple needs, as well as using his business savvy and dogged promotion to increase her prominence nationally. Borenstein and other friends brought Morgan groceries and she depended on their generosity to pay her bills and take care of other everyday needs.
When Jennie Johnson, the true owner of the house that became the Everlasting Gospel Mission, died in 1965 or shortly thereafter, her godchild inherited the property and put it up for sale. Not wanting Sister Morgan to lose her mission, Borenstein and his business associate Allan Jaffe (another of Sister Morgan's patrons) quietly bought the house allowing the preacher to live and work there unimpeded by worrisome rent and repair costs.
Sister Gertrude Morgan shocked Borenstein in early 1974 when she announced that the Lord had commanded her to cease making art and focus on her poetry as a creative outlet because the fame and income generated for her by her artwork was unacceptable to God. Sister Gertrude Morgan died peacefully in her sleep on July 8, 1980 and was buried in a pauper's grave in Providence Memorial Park Cemetery, just outside the city.
The events of the Bible's Book of Revelation assumed prominence in Sister Morgan's preaching and artwork. Although modern eschatologists warn that these writings should be viewed allegorically instead of literally, 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.
In Morgan's later works, the images became shorthand illustrations of the text. 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.
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