First published: Fall 2019
Spreading God's message became Sister Gertrude Morgan's life's work, and art was the tool she used
“He moves my hand. Do you think I would ever know how to do a picture like this by myself?” So said outsider artist Sister Gertrude Morgan about her work and God’s involvement. Former art curator William Fagaly, who wrote Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan, knew Morgan for the last 12 years of her life and says that she did not even consider herself an artist. She used art to communicate her faith and to convey her plea to the people of New Orleans to find salvation in the Lord. Fagaly says, “Her artworks were the tools of her self ministry, and we view them as such and recognise them for their additional importance as unique visions and as works of art.”
Angels Watching Over Me, c. 1970s, mixed media on paper, 17 x 14.5 in. / 43 x 37 cm, Gordon W. Bailey Collection
Morgan was born Gertrude Williams in 1900, in Alabama, and moved with her family to Georgia. Her parents were almost certainly the children of former slaves, and the family lived in the Deep South at a time when life was very hard for black people. Morgan stopped going to school in the third grade. The reasons are unclear, Fagaly says, but speculates that she may have been on the autism spectrum.
In her teens, Morgan became very religious and committed to her church. She worked as a servant in a private household and then, at 28, got married, taking her husband’s surname. Six years later, she first received what she called a “revelation” from God. She described it as the most important day of her life and wrote:
Sitting in my kitchen one night, I heard a great strong Voice speak to me said I’ll make thee as a signet for I have chosen thee I got this calling on the 30th day of Dec in 1934 I had to answere my calling and one day give up and Pack up and go. Are you a chosen vessel of God’s its wonderful to be Be. God called me a chosed me and turned me into the hands of his son and JESUS said take up your cross and follow me.
In 1938, Morgan left her husband, returning to Alabama to live in accordance with her so-called revelations from God. Wearing a black uniform with a white collar, as seen in her later paintings, she tended to the sick (“her healing work” she said), and spread her religious message through preaching, singing and playing tambourine. But another revelation was to lead to more change for Morgan. One day, a heavy hailstorm led her to pray for protection. She said, “I got in my bed and trembled and said, ‘Father, I’ll do what you want me to do’, and I’ve been running ever since. I’ve been travelling the streets. But the Lord told me to leave the streets, give up music and find a new way to speak the Gospel.” Soon after, Morgan relocated to New Orleans.
It was in this Louisiana city that she met Mother Margaret Parker and Sister Cora Williams, two women with whom she quickly formed a bond, based on their shared faith. She moved into Parker’s 18-room house and adopted the title of “Sister”. Together, the trio established a mission and a home for children, and provided support for working mothers. They also went out preaching God’s word, wearing their missionary uniforms, as depicted in Morgan’s painting The Barefoot Prophetesses in which Parker, the tallest, seems to take the role of “head mother”. During this time, Parker and Williams were a surrogate family to Morgan. “God took me away from my people”, she said, “This is where He wants me to be. This is my home.” She did not move on from the ministry until the mid-1950s.
Morgan was preaching for many years before she began including art in her spiritual practice. One day, she started drawing lines on a piece of paper and was struck by the Lord saying that her drawing was of “the New Jerusalem”. From then on, she used art to illustrate her teachings. “Sister Gertrude’s mission was to warn her brethren about the dangers of not following the Scriptures, particularly the apocalyptic Book of Revelation”, Fagaly says. “Her all-consuming passion was to deliver her message from God, and that deep devotion is manifested in her colourfully illustrated communications. As she proclaimed, ‘I’m a soldier in the army of the lord, walking to get the Bus around 9pm.’"
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #103