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Self-taught artist focused on God

Sister Gertrude Morgan used found objects in her work
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bright, bold images of biblical revelations painted in a grid blend with religious text to form a busy, colorful canvas.

“Revelation charter Read Wake up get up,” an acrylic and-or tempura, ball point ink and pencil on paper work by Sister Gertrude Morgan, is a masterful piece of art.

But to the self-taught artist and street missionary, the undated painting is a tool for her ministry, a creative way to teach the Bible and a reflection of her obsessive personality.

It is among 100 paintings and decorated objects that went on view Wednesday at the American Folk Art Museum. “Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan,” which runs through Sept. 26, is the first comprehensive traveling retrospective of Morgan’s work.

“She integrates images with text in such an imaginative, innovate way,” William Fagaly, guest curator and the leading scholar on Morgan’s life and work, said.

The rambling text in Morgan’s paintings often mirrors her disjointed sermon style, as well as her intense focus on teaching the word of God.

This is the first major solo exhibit of Morgan’s work. Her works have been on display as part of group shows of Southern artists at major art museums throughout the country, including a show of three Louisiana artists at the American Folk Art Museum in the 1970s.

Ron Jagger, director of Phyllis Kind Gallery, which has five Morgan works for sale, said her works sell for $2,500 to $15,000.

Born in 1900 in Lafayette, Ala., she was ahead her time in using recycled or “found” objects, which include toilet paper rolls, lampshades, her guitar case, a tabletop and For Sale sign fashioned into canvases.

“She didn’t have any money,” said Fagaly, who was the artist’s friend during the last 12 years of her life, until her death in 1980. “She used anything she could get her hands on.”

Fagaly said it likely didn’t occur to Morgan to go to an arts supply store, and it wasn’t until late in her career that her agent sent someone to buy her supplies.

“Red sea the sea lying Between Egypt and arabia,” an acrylic and-or tempura, ball point ink and pencil on paper or cloth lampshade, boasts a colorful landscape with angels and a smiling sun on the outside. The interior is inscribed with a message that begins, “SiNG JESUS iS MY AiRPLANE,” a phrase repeated in much of her art.

Morgan devoted many of her works to New Jerusalem, the holy city described in Revelations as “coming down from God out of heaven.” She depicted it as a 12-story, rectangular building. The 12 floors are likely attributed to exploration of different biblical themes, such as the 12 gates, 12 angels, 12 tribes, 12 apostles.

“there’s a Bright crown Waiting for me,” features dozens of angels flying around the 12-story building painted on the right. The inscription below the building reads, “Sing there’s a Bright crown Waiting for me Repeat 3 times in the new Jerusalem Rev. 21.”

Warning of evilThe text on the undated wood panel signals Morgan’s pattern of repetition common in her speech and song. The black and white angels clad in white robes add to the complexity of Morgan’s composition, rather than make a statement about ethnicity, Fagaly said.

“I don’t think that race was much an issue to her,” he said of the artist, who was married to a white man and who used both blacks and whites in her paintings.

While Morgan did not consider her work to be art, she signed many of her pieces — “She was not without ego,” said Fagaly, who plans to catalog Morgan’s approximately 700 works.

Still, Morgan’s passion and determination were aimed at one cause.

“She was just so focused on warning people of the vicissitudes of evil, and that manifests itself in her obsession,” he said.

Morgan settled in New Orleans in 1939, and became a familiar figure in the French Quarter, where she displayed her paintings and often sang, accompanying herself on guitar or tambourine. Donations and sales of her art helped fund Sister Gertrude’s Everlasting Gospel Mission, a modest house where she held nightly prayer meetings and other services. She claimed Jesus “moves my hand.”

“Sister Gertrude Morgan was a true visionary,” museum director Gerard Wertkin said. “She painted her passionate visions of the Apocalypse in a lively, expressive manner that gave emphasis to the theatrical quality of Revelation’s prophetic themes. ...

“She painted with a sure sense of conviction in the redeeming truths inherent in her art and its message.”

The exhibit will travel to the New Orleans Museum of Art from Nov. 13 though Jan. 16, 2005, and The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago, from Feb. 11, 2005 through May 28, 2005.