Morgan, Sister Gertrude
Sister Gertrude Morgan
Artist, singer, preacher
Sister Gertrude Morgan was many things to many people. To residents and tourists who came to the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana, she was a street preacher who dressed in a nurse's uniform, explained that she was the bride of Christ, and spoke and sang, through a megaphone, to anyone who would listen about the Kingdom of Heaven. To music fans she was a solo performer on a unique gospel music album, featuring just her voice and a tambourine, that demonstrated the close links between Southern African-American gospel music and its African roots. Among those music fans was Philadelphia DJ and producer King Britt, who released a remix of her music in 2005. To museum curators and art gallery owners she was the creator of religious folk art that gained a national reputation. And to the poor of New Orleans she was the operator of the Everlasting Gospel Mission, whose yard filled with four-leaf clover led to a door where they could find food and childcare when their backs were to the wall.
Morgan was born Gertrude Williams in LaFayette, Alabama, on April 7, 1900. She was the seventh of eight children of Edward and Frances Williams, and as a child she knew the desperately poor life of subsistence farming in the South. Her education lasted only until the third grade, when she left school to work in the fields. As a child she was drawn to art and scratched pictures in the dirt outside her family's home. The Williamses bounced around eastern Alabama, living in or near Girard (near Phenix City) and Opelika before settling in nearby Columbus, Georgia, where Gertrude became a member of the Rose Hill Memorial Baptist Church. At age 28, she married a man named Will Morgan. She remembered that time in her life fondly, saying, according to Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, she was "havin' a good time, goin' about my business, goin' to the picture show."
Ministered in "Headquarters of Sin"
It was during her 30s—the date is variously given as 1934 and 1937—that Morgan experienced the crucial religious revelation of her life. Sitting in her kitchen, she heard a voice that commanded her to "go and preach—tell it to the world!" according to the Sister Gertrude Morgan Web site. She heeded the call and began preaching in the streets. She worked as a nursemaid and cared for orphaned children as she could. After her husband left her, she was free to go where she wished. Reasoning that wide-open New Orleans had the greatest number of lost souls in need of her spiritual services; Kimmelman noted that she called the city "the headquarters of sin." She made her way there in 1939 and met two other missionary women, Margaret Parker and Cora Williams.
They started an orphanage and mission on Flake Avenue in the Gentilly neighborhood, and began dressing in sober black robes with white collars. Morgan dubbed herself Sister Gertrude Morgan, and in place of her earlier Baptist faith, she began attending the physically demonstrative services of the city's Holiness and Sanctified churches. The three women sang hymns on the streets of New Orleans to raise money for the mission.
Morgan's spiritual life continued to develop in New Orleans. Around 1955 she experienced further revelations, one of which anointed her the bride of Christ. She began to dress in white instead of black and sometimes wore a nurse's uniform as she preached the gospel and sang in the city's much-visited French Quarter. A second revelation inspired her to begin illustrating her religious ideas in the form of visual art, and she began to draw and paint. At first she used crayons and thought that she could use her drawings in teaching religion to children. Christ, and her relationship to Christ, were among her favorite subjects for many years; she painted Christ on a throne that resembled the popular Barcalounger chair, depicted him in a tuxedo, and flying an airplane toward heaven. Although her signature varied, it consistently highlighted her devotion to Christ; she signed her works as "Your Boss's Wife," "Nurse to Doctor Jesus," "Little Ethiopia Girl," "Everlasting Gospel Revelation Painter," or "Housekeeper for Dada God."
Discovered by Art Dealer
Morgan patterned her first works after prints in illustrated Bibles, but soon created more and more imaginative pieces. Any surface, from a scrap of cardboard to a lampshade to a guitar case an empty roll of toilet paper could serve her as a canvas, and she packed large numbers of angels and imaginary creatures into her depictions of the Book of Revelations, another of her favorite themes. In 1960, Morgan's artworks were discovered by New Orleans art dealer E. Lorenz ("Larry") Borenstein, who began to exhibit them at his Associated Artists Studio gallery on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. The building that once held the art gallery is a 1750 building with a storied history that is now the Preservation Hall jazz venue.
Borenstein befriended Morgan, who had moved out of the Gentilly house after the death of Cora Williams in 1957 and lived at various places in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, a section of the city that was later devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the early 1960s she moved into a home at 5444 North Dorgenois Street owned by a widow named Jennie Johnson and opened her own Everlasting Gospel Mission there, holding services in which she employed only a Bible, her paintings, a pointer/drumstick, a tambourine, and a megaphone of rolled paper (itself painted with scenes from the Bible). In 1965 the house was damaged by Hurricane Betsy. Around that time Johnson died, and Borenstein and business partner Allan Jaffe purchased the home from her heirs, turning it over to Morgan for use in her missionary activities.
Sometimes Borenstein invited Morgan to perform in his gallery as well, and in 1970 he arranged with a visiting British sound engineer to record some of her music. Morgan entered into the spirit of the project with new music that reflected the occasion; one track on which she shouted "Hallelujah! Come on, let's make a record! I wanna make a record for my Lord" gave the album its title. Accompanying her guttural but clear voice with only a tambourine, Morgan created mosaics of sound and speech that drew on the deep past of Southern African-American music, reaching back to a time when it still directly reflected African practices. In "Power," she repeated the word "power," varying it as "more power" or "you got power," in short patterns over a rapidly pulsing beat on the tambourine, showing little or no influence of the harmonies of European-American music. Some of the songs had spoken passages mixed in, as Morgan would do when she gave a sermon. The album was issued on Borenstein's Preservation Hall Recordings label; more a cult favorite than a hit, it was nevertheless repeatedly reissued and remained widely available on CDs and on-line download services in the early 2000s.
At a Glance …
Born Gertrude Williams, April 7, 1900, in LaFayette, AL; married Will Morgan, ca. 1928 (marriage dissolved); died July 8, 1980, in New Orleans, LA. Education: Left school in third grade to do farm work with family. Religion: Raised Baptist; preached Holiness services in New Orleans.
Career: Heard call to preach, mid-1930s; moved to New Orleans, 1939; (with Margaret Parker and Cora Williams) started mission in Gentilly neighborhood; began drawing with crayons and soon to paint, mid-1950s; works exhibited by art dealer E. Lorenz Borenstein, beginning 1960; opened Everlasting Gospel Mission in Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, early 1960s; recorded album, Let's Make a Record, 1970 (remixed by DJ Britt as King Britt Presents Sister Gertrude Morgan, 2005); stopped making art, 1974; many posthumous museum and gallery exhibits of artworks.
Included Text in Artworks
Morgan's artworks continued to evolve in style in her later years, increasingly often taking on words themselves as an element. Sometimes she would illustrate words whose first letters spelled out the alphabet, and in what are thought to be her later paintings (her works had no dates, and an exact chronology for them is difficult to establish) she began to create abstract patterns composed of thousands of words that, Kimmelman wrote, "increasingly took up every spare millimeter of space in her pictures. They flowed, stream-of-consciousness, in rapt and incantatory style, which was also how she spoke."
In the 1970s Morgan's art gained national attention. Painter Andy Warhol was among her admirers, as was Interview magazine writer Rosemary Kent, who profiled Morgan for the magazine's first issue. In 1974, however, Morgan announced that God had instructed her to stop making art; the fame it had brought her, she said, was unacceptable in God's eyes. Her decision may have been influenced by her deteriorating eyesight. Some of the money used to buy the North Dorgenois house had come from the sales of Morgan's art in the first place; when she stopped painting, Borenstein observed (according to Kimmelman) that "I don't know how this is going to work out for her and the Lord, but it affects me about he same way as the gasoline shortage affects traveling salesmen." She continued to preach, write poetry, and operate her mission, and on July 8, 1980, she died in her sleep.
Morgan's reputation continued to expand after her death, and in the early 2000s both her artwork and her music were brought into the national spotlight. Morgan's paintings and drawings became the subject of a major exhibition organized in 2003 by the American Folk Art Museum in New York; the exhibition moved to the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Intuit gallery in Chicago. And Philadelphia DJ and remix producer King Britt issued the album King Britt Presents Sister Gertrude Morgan, surrounding the original vocals from Let's Make a Record with electronic beats. The album took on added significance and sales momentum as flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina devastated Morgan's Ninth Ward neighborhood in late August of 2005. King Britt was hooked on Morgan's music from the first time he heard "Power." "Man! First it was her voice," he told Dan DeLuca of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The honesty in her voice. And then, the message. In times like today, we really need a voice of hope. And this was it."
Let's Make a Record, Preservation Hall, 1970.
Art in America, May 2005, p. 66.
New York Times, September 7, 2003, p. AR93; February 27, 2004, p. E27; August 2, 2004, p. E3.
News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), February 15, 2007.
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 23, 2005.
"Learn About Sister Gertrude," Sister Gertrude: Let's Make a Record,www.sistergertrude.com (July 15, 2007).
"The Minister's Art," Artnet,www.artnet.com/magazine/features/karlins/karlins4-9-04.asp (July 15, 2007).
"Sister Gertrude Morgan: A Biography," Traditional Fine Arts Organization,www.tfaoi.com/11/511/5aa94b.htm (July 15, 2007).