Driven by religious devotion, Sister Gertrude Morgan was a self-taught artist and self-anointed missionary who created sacred paintings and sculpture to enhance her ministry, filling an array of found surfaces with highly keyed scenes from the Bible, her own life, and visions of the world to come.

Gertrude Williams was born in 1900 in Lafayette, Alabama. The youngest of seven children, Gertrude showed an early interest in art, keenly observing the way her sister used a stick to draw in the dirt before eventually making her own sketches on paper. Around 1917, her family relocated to Columbus, Georgia, where she became an active member of Rose Hill Memorial Baptist Church. It was there that Gertrude, who left school before completing the third grade, likely developed her reading and writing skills. She would have also been exposed to illustrated scriptures, studying texts and images that would inspire her art. As a young adult, Gertrude worked as a domestic servant for a local family before marrying Will Morgan in 1928.

While sitting in her kitchen in 1934, Gertrude Morgan experienced the first of a series of spiritual revelations that charted her life’s course––and her oeuvre: “Go-o-o-o-o, Preacher, tell it to the World.” Though her Baptist faith did not permit women to speak from the pulpit, Morgan boldly followed the command, leaving Columbus and her husband behind. For a year, she found employment as a nanny and nursemaid throughout Alabama, practicing her “healing work,” a combination of caretaking and ministry. When a 1939 vision urged her to “find a new way to speak the Gospel,” Morgan traveled to New Orleans, the “headquarters of sin” that became her home until her death. There, she met two other female missionaries and adopted the title of “Sister.” Bonded by their faith, the three women opened a small chapel and home for children in need in the Lower Gentilly neighborhood.

When Morgan received a prophetic message in the mid-1950s christening her the “chosen bride of Christ,” she began dressing in an all-white nurse’s uniform. On the streets of the French Quarter––a haven for musicians, artists, sailors on shore leave, and gamblers––she thunderously sang and preached against debauchery through a homemade paper megaphone, shaking a tambourine in accompaniment.

Around 1960, Larry Borenstein––an art dealer who would later co-found the iconic music venue Preservation Hall––approached Morgan while she was evangelizing. She accepted his offer to exhibit her work and to perform at Associated Artists, his French Quarter gallery. A seasoned promoter and astute businessman, Borenstein brought Morgan’s art to a national audience over the course of their twenty-year relationship. Morgan also used the front porch and lawn of her shotgun house, located in the Lower Ninth Ward, as a de facto gallery, propping signs and paintings along the sidewalk and in the four-leaf clover-filled yard. Known as the “Everlasting Gospel Mission,” the home was also a place of worship; Morgan regularly conducted services in the white-washed “Prayer Room,” singing and exhorting before a modest congregation while keeping rhythm with a pointer stick.

Between 1956 and 1974, Morgan completed an estimated eight hundred drawings, paintings, and sculptures to illuminate her sermons. Her earliest works depict scenes from the Bible, but over time, Morgan began creating self-portraits and autobiographical pieces, adding narrative text and inscriptions throughout the picture plane. She worked in a variety of media, including acrylic, tempera, watercolor, pen, and colored pencil, often in combination. Her surfaces included window shades, notebook paper, toilet tissue rolls, styrofoam, pillows, and hand fans, given to congregants during prayer services. In 1966, Morgan’s subject matter narrowed as she executed apocalyptic views of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city described in the biblical book of Revelation. Characterized by an invigorated color palette, these works share similar motifs, a multilevel structure being the most common. In many images, Morgan places herself––an African American woman clad in a wedding gown––alongside a Caucasian Jesus wearing a groom’s tuxedo, surrounded by dark and light-skinned people in exuberant celebration.

Three major exhibitions brought Morgan national attention in 1970: Twentieth-Century Folk Art at the Museum of American Folk Art (now the American Folk Art Museum) in New York; Dimensions of Black at La Jolla Museum of Art in California; and Symbols and Images: Contemporary Primitive Artists, a traveling exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts. That same year, God’s Greatest Hits, a book pairing Sister Morgan’s artwork with biblical excerpts, was published. In 1971, Morgan recorded Let’s Make a Record, an album that fused praise and performance, for Borenstein’s True Believer Records label, founded and named in her honor. The Museum of American Folk Art’s 1973 exhibition Louisiana Folk Paintings: Bruce Brice, Clementine Hunter, Sister Gertrude Morgan, was instrumental in elevating both Morgan’s work and self-taught Southern art at large. Today, her works are held by numerous institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the High Museum of Art.

Morgan stopped painting in 1974, convinced that God objected to the fame and financial gain she had garnered as an artist. She continued to preach and wrote poetry, occasionally adding miniscule sketches in the margins. She died peacefully at home in the Everlasting Gospel Mission in 1980.