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Jesus Was Her Airplane

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Sister Gertrude Morgan was a self-taught artist of the "visionary outsider" variety, that much is certain. But she was also, above all, a self-taught preacher, prophet and healer, a remarkably consistent crusader against Satan. For that reason she was a fixture in the French Quarter, the "headquarters of sin," for the latter part of her life, and if she never could save all of its sinners, she at least tried to communicate in ways they found familiar, as a painter and a street musician.

As is often the case with artists on a mission from God, the call to paint came late in life. For Morgan, born April 7, 1900, it came in 1956, and while her Lord must surely be grateful for her preaching, we mortals celebrate her art, her oddly William Blakean vision of the world reborn as an ecstatic New Jerusalem. Was she a great painter? Technically, no; her level of craft was childish at best. But unlike many academically trained artists, Morgan's forceful mystique suffused her work with the charm and power of impassioned innocence. Because she did not consider herself an artist, she was willing to take chances that oddly paralleled the innovations of the great mid-century modernists. For instance, A Is For Alpha and in Omega To is a melding of script and paint that hints at Twombly, Tobey or Pollock.

But she could care less about modernism; her paintings must be understood in the context of the other big event in her life in 1956, for that was when God chose her to be a bride of Christ. Or as she wrote: "Big Dada darling, when you Brought me forth I didn't no when I grew up I was gone be your wife." From then on she wore mostly white. And while much of her work was based on the Book of Revelations, she included herself in updated Bible scenes in works such as New Jerusalem With Jesus Is My Airplane, where the New Jerusalem of prophesy appears as a colorful apartment compound with Morgan and Jesus in a small plane flying over it. Painted in vivid crimson, mustard, pink and green, it is filled with atmospheric details and her fluid script on a salmon sky: "Jesus is air Plane / he hold the world in / his hand he guide / me through the land / lord Jesus you is / my air Plane ... ."

In another, the heavenly city is ablaze with light and the air space outside thick with angels. Here the personal reference is in the title: There's a Bright Crown Waitang for Me, while her flowing script on the work itself exhorts the viewer to "Sing there's a Bright crown / Waitang for me Repeat 3 times / in the new Jerusalem ... ." She also painted some New Orleans scenes, including the lower Ninth Ward neighborhood of her Everlasting Gospel Mission as it looked to her, a topsy-turvy place that was no stranger to the devil. In When I've Done the Best I Can I Want My Crown, some shotgun houses are seen from above, as God, who is African American, presides in his straight-back chair and Sister Gertrude sings His praises to the little children thronging all around her. Some houses, perhaps those of the fallen, appear upside down as the streets flow with her ecclesiastical script: "when / I've done the / Best I can I / want my crown / my crown telling Satan and his followers his / Kingdom must come down, come on down ... ." In Sister Gertrude Morgan, Satan faced an implacable foe. Strong and sturdy, with a commanding stare (even in her self-portraits) and deep, prophetic voice, she managed to spook even Larry Borenstein, the late Preservation Hall impresario, who gave her a place to show her work. But she was, alas, only mortal, and God's ways are mysterious. In 1974, He told her to stop painting and focus on her poetry, which she did until that fateful day -- July 8, 1980 -- when He called her home for her final airplane ride. Her body was laid to rest in Metairie, in the potter's field at Providence Memorial Park, but in this show -- which was curated by NOMA's William Fagaly and which received rave reviews when it opened at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City -- her spirit lives on.

Sister Gertrude Morgan included herself in updated Bible scenes in works such as New Jerusalem With Jesus Is My Airplane, which is painted in vivid crimson, mustard, pink and green and filled with atmospheric details and her fluid script on a salmon sky.
  • Sister Gertrude Morgan included herself in updated Bible scenes in works such as New Jerusalem With Jesus Is My Airplane, which is painted in vivid crimson, mustard, pink and green and filled with atmospheric details and her fluid script on a salmon sky.

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