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Art is a Calling

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Art is a calling, the ministry of sister Gertrude Morgan

  painting: New Jerusalem From the Prayer Room

IF YOU WONDER what it means to say that art is a calling, you might have found an answer to this statement at the American Folk Museum's retropective of the art of Sister Gertrude Morgan, "Tools of Her Ministry."

During the 1950's, Sister Morgan believed that God called on her to paint. She was in her mid-50's, a self-appointed prophet, a street preacher in New Orleans, "the headquarters of sin," as she called it. With no art training and illustrated Bibles for guides, she put pencils, pens, crayons and paints to paper, canvas, cardboard and almost anything else at hand: Styrofoam food trays, toilet paper rolls, doors, window and lamp shades, scrap wood and detergent boxes.

Untutored but full of an uncanny grace, her paintings were meant as teaching aids to spread the word of God, and words, thousands of them, increasingly took up every spare millimeter of space in her pictures. They flowed, stream-of-consciousnesslike, in rapt and incantatory style, which was also how she spoke.

"Woe Woe Woe/ name of/ the star/ worm/ wood/ John the Revelator/ hell/ FIRE/ help help earth quake/ oh oh oh/ Sister/ Gertrude/ Morgan the/ lord of lambs wife," annotates a scene of goggle-eyed angels from the Book of Revelations.

Briefly she became a cultish favorite. Rosemary Kent visited her in the early 1970's to write an article for the first issue of Interview magazine. Sister Morgan was seated behind her white-draped table, in her starched white nurse's uniform with her little peaked white cap, dressed as always as the bride of Jesus, in the small front room of her whitewashed Everlasting Gospel Mission, pounding her tambourine and shouting sermons through a narrow painted paper megaphone in her gravelly alto voice.

In the show is a photograph of the room, pictures on the wall: a painting of the eye of God, a head of Jesus, a scene of New Jerusalem, which Sister Morgan envisioned as a 12-story apartment block with Ping-Pong tables, a cabbage patch and interracial bands of angels swaying in the sky like a field of wheat in a strong wind (see painting at top of page).

Two floors of the Folk Art Museum were occupied with these painted epiphanies, happy consolations for a world-weary urbanite. Warning sternly about hellfire and brimstone, they are hugely endearing, a contrast conveyed in the photographs of Sister Morgan, solid and stern, fixedly surveying a world in desperate need of salvation. She was, by all accounts, a solemn and intimidating woman, determined to bring light into dark places, and if her work had nothing conscious to do with easy charm, it was charming nonetheless.

Its plainspoken ecstasy gives it an aura. You don't have to be religious to appreciate the inborn eloquence, both formal and literary; you only have to accept that painting, when it comes from the heart and is so clearly genuine, can lift the soul.

Like hundreds of other poor African-American women in the South, she started preaching in the streets, working as a nursemaid, tending to children and lost souls. Her husband disappeared. She moved around. In New Orleans, she met Margaret Parker and Cora Williams, and they founded an orphanage. Sister Morgan later painted her recollection of the three of them in their standard outfits: black robes with white collars and white sashes

About the same time that God told her to start painting, she also believed that she had been anointed the bride of Christ; so she traded her black robes for white ones and set up her own mission in a shotgun house with four-leaf clovers in the front yard.

A New Orleans art dealer, Larry Borenstein, came across her work around 1960. He invited her to show her paintings and perform in his gallery, and he made a record album of her singing. He also bought the mission for her when it came up for sale and, with an associate, Allan Jaffe, developed a national following for her art that earned her money to maintain the mission.

William Fagaly, the curator from New Orleans who organized the present show and knew Borenstein and Sister Morgan, proposes a rough chronology for the art, which is mostly undated. The exhibition starts with small crayon drawings, alternately childlike and polished, as if some figures were traced. The palette is muted. These works give way to increasingly baroque fantasies in bright primary colors with flickering skies, speckled beasts and painted alphabets ("A is for the apple that grows on the tree").
The through-line — a combination of obsessiveness and innocence — suggests "a great deal about Sister Gertrude Morgan's demeanor and character," Mr. Fagaly writes in the catalog. He adds: "Her religious devotion was so acute as to be considered abnormal and eccentric and to put her at a certain remove from society." She was clearly an extreme case.

Her mix of text and image relates to works by a slew of modern artists and poets, none of whom she ever heard of or cared about. The ups and downs in her painting, which affects how we judge it aesthetically, belie its true purpose, to give visual form to voices in her head. Her paintings were talismans of mystical devotion, derived from inner necessity.

The Lord called her a last time: she died, peacefully in her sleep, in 1980, at 80. After a fancy funeral in New Orleans's most respected funeral home, she was buried in an unmarked grave just outside the city, close to the airport.

It would be heaven if works like hers were eternally before our eyes.

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