Following a series of divine revelations in 1957, Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980) began to paint. ‘Jesus just took my hand,’ she maintained. For the next 16 years, the self-styled ‘Bride of Christ and housekeeper for Dada God’, who dressed only in a white nurse’s uniform, imparted her ecstatic visions of a New Jerusalem on old scraps of cardboard and paper.
In January 2020, three paintings by this remarkable self-taught artist were offered in the Outsider Art sale at Christie’s in New York.
Sister Gertrude’s communications with God had in fact begun some 20 years earlier in the 1930s, when the Lord had impelled her to leave her husband of 10 years, and her home in Columbus, Georgia, to travel the southern states of America spreading the gospel through prayer and song.
Such a subversive, radical act by a black married woman was unheard of at the time. ‘Just be sure and give Jesus credit for what I do,’ she said in an interview in 1973. ‘He’s the one that deserves all the praise. He’s the one that made me do it.’
In 1939, she settled in New Orleans — ‘the headquarters of sin’ — where she became a fixture in the French Quarter, jangling her tambourine and exhorting the public to ‘wake up and hear about Jesus’.
Dealer Larry Borenstein discovered Sister Gertrude’s paintings, and it was not long before the New York art scene came calling
Later, she established the tiny Everlasting Gospel Mission in a shotgun-style house in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was here, in the 1950s, that she began to paint, adorning the outside of her home with pictures of the New Jerusalem — a place populated by angels and skyscrapers filled with people of all races.
Inside the house, she created an all-white prayer room where she would evangelise through a paper megaphone.
The ministry survived on small donations until the early 1960s, when art dealer Larry Borenstein (1919-1981) discovered Sister Gertrude’s paintings. Borenstein was well connected and it was not long before the New York art scene came calling, bringing money, notoriety and entry to the counterculture.
Her paintings were featured in national exhibitions, including a show at the Louisiana Arts and Science Centre in Baton Rouge and the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Andy Warhol (1928-87) sent Rosemary Kent down to speak to the painter for the first issue of Interview magazine in 1973, with Kent explaining to the New York Times that, ‘Andy was totally enthralled by her work. It takes a sophisticated eye to see that, hey, this is not just scribbling, this is something important’.
Famous actors began buying Sister Gertrude’s work, including Vincent Price and Robert Duvall. Cara Zimmerman, specialist in Outsider Art at Christie’s, thinks that it was her openness and honesty that appealed to collectors. ‘Her soul is evident in each drawing and painting,’ says the specialist.
In 1971 Larry Borenstein, founder of the art gallery that became Preservation Hall, a revered New Orleans institution, recorded Sister Gertrude singing. The album they released was called Let’s Make a Record.
The record is a mini masterpiece: the intimacy of the space amplifies the driving rhythm and raw authority of Sister Gertrude’s voice, one honed on the street as a preacher. Her songs reflected her utopian vision of a world in which people of all races can live in harmony.
Years later, the director Ava DuVernay used Sister Gertrude’s song I Got a New World in My View in the Martin Luther King Jr biopic Selma, explaining that the music echoed the hopes of the African-Americans marching for their right to vote.
Ben Jaffe, who succeeded his father Allan as the director of Preservation Hall, recounts his family’s relationship with Sister Gertrude and his own memories of the indomitable ‘Nurse of Dr Jesus’, who died when he was nine.
‘People have described her as the Janis Joplin of gospel,’ he says, ‘for the fervour and intensity and the sheer belief in what she was saying.’ Music producer King Britt, who remixed Sister Gertrude’s album in 2005 to critical acclaim, recalls ‘the first time I heard her voice it just pierced my whole spirit’.
But as Sister Gertrude’s renown grew louder, she became wary. ‘I’m a missionary of Christ before I’m an artist,’ she said. ‘Give all that fame to some other artist.’ Painting and singing were simply ways of communicating God’s message, and as her art work became collectable, that message was obscured.
In 1974, Sister Gertrude stopped painting altogether, explaining she was too worried about the world to concentrate on art. She needed to be preparing for ‘a new heaven and a new Earth’.
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For the rest of her life, until her death in 1980, she preoccupied herself with alerting people to the coming apocalypse.
‘I stand alone,’ she sang. ‘Not tripping, just saying, I’m different, ain’t hanging on the coattails of the next man, I got a new world in my view.’