Vision Seekers

Outsider artists such as Sister Gertrude Morgan often come to public attention thanks to their unique -- and sometimes controversial -- relationships with art world insiders.



Tools of Her Ministry, the exhibition of Sister Gertrude Morgan's work organized by the American Folk Art Museum in New York and opening next week at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), celebrates an evangelist who wore white robes and generated a flood of pictures, mostly on wood, using vibrant primary colors to illustrate scenes from the Book of Revelation. Sister Gertrude was far less prolific than Clementine Hunter, the esteemed self-taught artist who lived in Natchitoches and captured the rhythms of black rural life. Hunter painted thousands of pictures; Morgan did several hundred. But as with Clementine Hunter, the value of Morgan's works has escalated since her death.

Sister Gertrude, who died in 1980 at the age of 80, had a complex relationship with the late Larry Borenstein, a wily French Quarter real estate agent and art dealer. Borenstein, who founded Preservation Hall, and the late Alan Jaffe, who ran the hall, bought her a house. These two sons of the Russian Jewish diaspora became protective figures in the life of the black woman, who had left Alabama in 1930 and spent three decades as a sidewalk evangelist in the Lower Ninth Ward before showing her early paintings to Borenstein in 1960.

In his title essay in the Tools of Her Ministry catalog, William Fagaly pinpoints Borenstein's crucial importance in Morgan's life and work: "With his cunning ways and dogged promotion, Borenstein made the work of Sister Gertrude Morgan, both artistic and missionary, well-known throughout the country. He looked after her welfare and tended to her simple needs. Š If anyone wished to meet Sister Morgan, Borenstein would drive them to the Everlasting Gospel Mission (in the Ninth Ward), where she invariably 'held court' and conducted an on-the-spot prayer meeting, reading Scriptures and singing hymns with the visitor."

BORENSTEIN'S RELATIONSHIP to Morgan is a set piece in the history of Southern folk art. Many such artists with meager educations, or none at all, find the path to museums and galleries because of a collector, dealer or artist who becomes a pivotal presence, intervening with money, advice and marketing prowess.

Such relationships, across the chasm of race and class, are invariably complicated. Imagine Borenstein's perplexity in 1974 when Sister Gertrude told him she could not paint any more. The market for her works was growing. Why quit? The Lord, she explained, had told her to stop.

In his research, Fagaly, the Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art at NOMA, learned that Morgan's decision to stop painting in the prime of her career was rooted in the logic of a mystic. Sister Gertrude achieved a state few mortals imagine, the intensity of direct communication with God. Unlike the Jesus-sellers who dominate TV on Sunday mornings, she was an evangelist whose relationship with the Word had its own pure medium. Her paintings extolled the meeting of heaven and earth, as found in the book of Revelation. By these lights, the arc of her life makes perfect sense. What draws from heaven must resolve itself to earth. When God says stop, you stop.

Revelation is the last and most apocalyptical book of the New Testament, the source of evangelical belief that we live in "end time," a finale for humanity marked by war in the Holy Land, the return of Christ and rapture with his faithful. Sister Gertrude's interpretation of Revelation was a more benevolent rendering of heaven melding with earth. Her Gospel Mission home in the Ninth Ward -- and her street preaching in the French Quarter and at a tabernacle at the Jazz & Heritage Festival in the 1970s -- were the work of a self-styled bride of Christ. "Jesus is my airplane," is the motto on one of her paintings. Thus did she extend a mystical lineage of holy women, betrothed to the savior, that reaches back deep into medieval Christendom, as personified by such saints as Catherine of Siena.

Sister Gertrude called New Orleans "the headquarters of sin." Her calling insisted on proximity to sinners: how else to bear witness? In the four-plus decades of her life here, the French Quarter evolved from a down-on-the-heels urban village into a crossroads of humanity, teeming with art and bohemia. The city was still legally segregated when she met Borenstein. She died as it was becoming an international tourist Mecca.

By the time Fagaly attended Morgan's funeral at House of Bultman in 1980, the spirituality of her paintings had found a following among collectors of folk (also called "outsider" or "self-taught") art. Works by Sister Gertrude that sold for $250 in her lifetime now command $7,000 or more, a reflection of how little of what she painted is available in galleries.

AS BORENSTEIN WAS DRAWN to the passionate visions of Sister Gertrude's work, Anton Haardt felt a magnetic pull to the pink "dinosaur birds" and strange shapings of fruits, animals and human bodies that Mose Tolliver, working on scrap wood, was selling in his yard.

"Mose Tolliver used to hang his paintings in a tree outside his home in Montgomery, Ala., pricing them at one or two dollars a piece," writes Anton Haardt in Mose T. From A to Z: The Folk Art of Mose Tolliver, a forthcoming biography, lushly illustrated, by the woman whose eponymous Magazine Street gallery has perhaps the city's most extensive inventory of high-quality works by black Southern folk artists.

The daughter of a wealthy Montgomery real estate agent, Anton Haardt earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute and was starting her own career as a painter in 1969 when she saw Tolliver's paintings outside his house. Tolliver had been crippled several years earlier in an accident on the job at a Montgomery furniture store when a crate of marble fell from a fork lift, crushing his left ankle and destroying the muscles and tendons in his legs. Forced to use a wheelchair and crutches, he threw himself into painting "to keep [my] head together," he said later.

Haardt began buying pictures from Tolliver. "Mose didn't have much in his bank account," she says. He would sell paintings to her for $10 each. She would drive to New Orleans and sell them to Russell Gaspardi, who had a gallery in the Quarter, for $20 each. "Gaspardi would sell them for $75 a piece," she says. "I'd give all the money from the sales to Mose, and he would give me two paintings in return."

Tolliver's imagination had a vivid erotic streak in his bulbous female figures, which would hardly have endeared him to Sister Gertrude. He also generated a stream of self-portraits -- a man with walking sticks, and heads that resemble animist masks.

"Mose and I became very close friends," continues Haardt. "I was also doing a lot of traveling back then. I didn't want him to lose anything on my account." Others, including Gaspardi, began making trips to Montgomery to buy art from Mose T at his home.

The friendship that blossomed between Anton Haardt, a daughter of Alabama's upper crust, and Mose Tolliver, a black man in a wheel chair barely scraping by, typifies the way in which many self-taught painters found their way into the art market. Haardt kept buying and selling his works as an agent on a non-exclusive basis. "I love Mose. I wanted to help him," she says.

In 1982, Haardt arranged for Tolliver to show his works in Washington, D.C., at the prestigious Corcoran Museum of Art's landmark exhibit Black Folk Art in America, 1930­1980.

"Before we left Alabama I had made a bet with Mose that if we bought ten of his paintings to Washington, I could sell them for a lot more money than he could ever imagine," she writes. "I aimed to sell them for one hundred dollars each, a lot of money in 1982, and certainly more than their usual selling price. After the opening, I was accompanied to my hotel room by several prominent folk-art collectors who were interested in buying Mose's paintings. Within minutes I had sold all of Mose's pictures and had one thousand dollars cash in my hand. For me, delivering those earnings to Mose was the pinnacle of our trip."

Over time, as Haardt bought more paintings from Tolliver, she held on to many of them. "I probably have 400 pieces by Mose," she says. She also purchased dozens of works by Jimmy Lee Sudduth, a rural artist whose figurative paintings, using red-brown Alabama mud, radiate a warm lyricism.

Although Haardt has made her home in New Orleans for years now, she makes regular trips back to Alabama to visit Tolliver, now 85, whose health is deteriorating. Tolliver's pieces sell for $500 to $1,500 at Anton Haardt Gallery, though some of his more stylized works go for considerably more.

The other artist whose work Haardt championed, the late Juanita Rodgers, lived outside of Montgomery in a shack in an open field. For years, Rodgers made sculptures out of mud. Haardt befriended her as well, spending long stretches watching her work and interviewing her about her obsession with mud sculptures. Haardt is completing a book about Rodgers, whose works she has preserved in storage since Rodgers' death.

ANTON HAARDT'S ESSAY on Juanita Rodgers appears in the massive 2000 book Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art. At $100 a copy, Souls Grown Deep was the brainchild of William Arnett, a pioneering folk art dealer in Atlanta, and his son Paul Arnett. The Arnetts produced a second volume of Souls Grown Deep in 2001 with financial support from Jane Fonda, who settled in Atlanta after her divorce from CNN founder Ted Turner.

In much the way Larry Borenstein molded the career of Sister Gertrude Morgan (such as she would allow), Bill Arnett has been a catalytic force in the folk art world. Like cutting-edge figures in many fields, he is a man with his share of controversy. In 1993, he was the subject of a 60 Minutes profile by Morley Safer that generated shock waves in the art world. Safer intimated that an artist Arnett represented, Thornton Dial, was living in a $340,000 house in Birmingham as Arnett's tenant, something like a latter-day sharecropper. Arnett had helped Dial get the mortgage. 60 Minutes' implication was clear: Arnett was exploiting the artists he represented.

In the second volume of Souls Grown Deep, Thornton Dial states: "These folks come here from 60 Minutes saying they want to give respect for the black peoples making art. But after a while, that TV man start talking the art down and ask Bill how something made by a man like Dial -- he be meaning a poor colored boy without no education -- how it be worth one hundred thousand dollars. Š The television person talk about me in my face like white folks used to talk about their servants in the same room, hurtful talk, like they ain't there, stuff like that."

Anton Haardt echoes Dial in calling the CBS piece unfair. "Though it pleased people who didn't like Bill," she adds.

Most of the artists featured in Souls Grown Deep have professional ties with the Arnetts, a fact that also prompted some back-biting in the gallery world. Arnett, 64, grew up in Columbus, Ga., studied at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, and found his way to folk art through an early passion for African pieces.

The collectors who became agents of folk art are much like the early aficionados of jazz who started as record collectors and then became record producers, investing their own attitudes about jazz into the market they created. Bill and Paul Arnett have been driving forces in establishing a canon of black folk artists in the South.

Born in 1928, Thornton Dial is one of the most successful artists, folk or otherwise, at work today. His outdoor sculpture piece Bridge for John Lewis, an homage to the civil rights activist and congressman from Atlanta, resembles a huge black slide with wraith-like figures climbing and descending, outsized hands extending forward. His images of women -- in pencil, watercolor, acrylic or charcoal on paper -- combine sinuous figures with mask-like faces that summon comparisons with artists as diverse as Picasso and Robert Gordy, the late New Orleans painter deeply influenced by African masks.

"Women was the ones always responsible for me," states Dial in an as-told-to essay in Souls Grown Deep. "Women are the creation of the world. They give love and care, and they also give strength and power. But you got to listen."

Arnett writes that Dial's paintings and sculptures from the early 1990s "viewed civilization through the actions of its cultural heroes and leaders." The image of tigers "appeared centrally or peripherally in half of Dial's pieces," he writes. "Though he often commented somewhat angrily on American attitudes toward blacks, Dial remained stoic, optimistic, and generally patriotic. Sometimes the tiger's challenges became one with the hardship of Dial's own life, lending this animal symbol a subliminally autobiographical flavor. His tiger works always seemed to propose that overcoming obstacles was merely a matter of patience and hard work."

Dial, who never learned to read, explains his credo in the interview essay: "Art is supposed to show the way the world is: sometimes dark, sometimes light. Š I believe I have proved that my art is about ideas, and about life, and the experience of the world. I have tried to learn how to explain everything that could be named about that experience, and if a person still see ignorance in me, he might just be looking at his own self. Š

"Art is a guide for every person who is looking for something. That's how I describe myself: Mr. Dial is a man looking for something."

Art is a search for all who make things designed for the inner spaces and public exteriors of our lives. The religious imagery Sister Gertrude Morgan made of her mystical illuminations, the flood of faces and figures that Mose Tolliver generated after his leg was destroyed, and the mythical sensibility of small folk and heroic figures in an African-American landscape wrought by Thornton Dial are three chapters in the annals of Southern folk art. Behind these artists are individuals -- Larry Borenstein, Anton Haardt, Bill and Paul Arnett -- who turned the passion of their own discoveries into commerce, advancing careers and creating public figures in the process.

Jason Berry's essay "New Orleans in the Years of Sister Gertrude Morgan," is included in the catalogue Tools of Her Ministry.

Sister Gertrude - Morgans New Jerusalem With Jesus Is My - Airplane
  • Sister Gertrude Morgans New Jerusalem With Jesus Is My Airplane
Sister Gertrude - Morgans Revelation I John
  • Sister Gertrude Morgans Revelation I John
Sister Gertrude - Morgans theres an al seeing eye watching you
  • Sister Gertrude Morgans theres an al seeing eye watching you
Sister Gertrude - Morgans VISION OF DEATH
  • Sister Gertrude Morgans VISION OF DEATH
Sister Gertrude - Morgans Self-Portrait in White With Jesus
  • Sister Gertrude Morgans Self-Portrait in White With Jesus
Sister Gertrude Morgan - performs at Associated Artists in the French Quarter.
  • Sister Gertrude Morgan performs at Associated Artists in the French Quarter.
Larry Borenstein, - founder of Preservation Hall, brought attention to Sister - Gertrude Morgans works  and often brought visitors - to her Ninth Ward home for an impromptu prayer - meeting. - DAN LEYRER
  • Dan Leyrer
  • Larry Borenstein, founder of Preservation Hall, brought attention to Sister Gertrude Morgans works and often brought visitors to her Ninth Ward home for an impromptu prayer meeting.
Back cover of Sister - Gertrude Morgans 1971 album Lets Make a Record
  • Back cover of Sister Gertrude Morgans 1971 album Lets Make a Record
Local gallery owner - Anton Haardts admiration of Mose Ts talent led to both - a long friendship and working relationship and a - forthcoming book of Mose Ts works. - TOM BRANTLEY
  • Tom Brantley
  • Local gallery owner Anton Haardts admiration of Mose Ts talent led to both a long friendship and working relationship and a forthcoming book of Mose Ts works.
Thornton Dials - Refugees Trying to Get to the United States
  • Thornton Dials Refugees Trying to Get to the United States

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