The Venice Biennale going on right now includes the works of Sister Gertrude Morgan, who was born in Lafayette, Alabama in 1900, the seventh child of Frances and Edward Williams. Her father was a dairy farmer.
It wasn’t until she was in her teens that she moved with her mother and siblings from their home in Girard / Phenix City, Alabama to Columbus, Georgia, and attended Rose Hill Memorial Baptist Church there.
The church is still around, and here’s a recent service:
Where her life truly turned came in her mid-30s: she left her husband, Will Morgan who was employed as a laborer at a lumber mill, whom she’d married in 1928 — they lived at 1324 North Avenue in Columbus. I’m bringing this up because she later made a drawing of this house (that now looks to have been demolished and is part of the site of the Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital), and this year, the Columbus Museum acquired it.
On the drawing, she 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 to my calling and one day give up and Pack up and go … a chosed vessel of God’s its wonderful to Be. G-d called me a chased me and turned me into the hands of his son and JESUS said take up your cross and follow me.
After leaving Columbus, she spent a short time in possibly Opelika and then Mobile, Alabama, and came in 1939 to preach on the streets of New Orleans (which she called the “headquarters of sin”) with Mother Margaret Parker and Sister Cora Williams, and the three of them ran an orphanage, dressed in black with only a white collar. They’d often be found in the French Quarter, spreading their message of salvation.
In the 1940 census, she’s listed living with them at 816-1/2 N Rampart, then I think for a while they were at 533 Flake Ave in Gentilly. The other two women in the 1940 census were marked as being widows, while Morgan is listed as being married still. The records states that the highest level of education she completed was second grade.
Sister Gertrude and Mother Margaret continued the ministry after Sister Cora died in 1954, and she and Mother Margaret traveled to attend conferences associated with the Holiness and Sanctified Church, a movement they were considered part of.
For a while, they lived together at 2538 Alabo Street, and there was another address on Alabo where she was listed.
Leaving there, she moved alone to a house in the Lower Ninth, calling it the “Everlasting Gospel Mission,” and she’d hang her paintings and messages on the front porch. I just checked — it seems that home was at 5444 N Dorgenois at Flood St — and it’s no longer extant, as it was destroyed when the levees failed during Katrina (the house also flooded when the levees failed in 1965 with Hurricane Betsy).
Backing up a little, in or about 1956, she was instructed by G-d to start painting, and that she did — so she’s known not only as an evangelist and singer but an artist…who changed her way of dress from black, to a white nurse’s uniform as her habit — as she considered herself a “Bride of Christ and housekeeper for Dada G-d,” also sometimes “nurse to Doctor Jesus.” Between the ’50s and 1974 when she purposefully stopped painting as she received another message to concentrate on other things, it’s estimated that she made eight hundred drawings, paintings, and sculptures.
Sister died in her sleep on July 8, 1980 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Providence Memorial Park in Metairie. In 1997, a marker was placed.
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A painting Noel Rockmore did of her while he was living in New Orleans, “Sister Gertrude Dreaming,” hung at JoAnn Clevenger’s Upperline before it closed.
Andy Warhol included her in his first issue of Interview, in September 1973.
Art historian William A. Fagaly, who knew her personally, wrote the book The Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan, published by the American Folk Art Museum and Rizzoli, in 2004.
Many nice photographs and audio bits from this piece at Panorama, Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art.
Huge sidenote on Panorama — their Spring 2022 issue includes a piece by Rachel Winter, Arabian Nights in the Mississippi Delta: The Embroideries of Ethel Wright Mohamed and we may have to talk about that soon. ❤️