Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sister Gertrude Morgan

Over the last five days, I have enjoyed communications about the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York -- one with a gallery owner and collector who lives not far from here, one in a blog post on Deep Fried Kudzu, and one with my brother in NYC. Even if I am lucky enough to attend the fair one year, it cannot match the memories of my having known many Alabama folk artists whose work is bought and sold like commodities, sometimes by people genuinely in love with the work, sometimes not.

affair with Alabama folk art began in 1973 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In a shady spot framed by pegboard panels on which hung her paintings, Sister Gertrude Morgan played her tambourine and belted out spirituals, using a cut-off Clorox bottle as her megaphone.

photograph by Robley M. Hood

Mesmerized, I sat in the grass and listened and looked for a long long time. When Sister Gertrude took a break, I walked around and around the pegboard panels, and then I sat, and I listened. Finally, I selected a painting, an unusual one -- I now know (and as Bill Fagaly confirmed when he saw it) -- depicting the bridge over the Zambesi and proclaiming "God's gonna trouble the water."

That fall her work, along with Clementine Hunter's and Bruce Brice's, was shown in the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City. The next year, I purchased two of her paintings shown in New York from the Borenstein Gallery, and for several years I
visited the gallery on the rare weekends when Gertrude appeared to sing and preach. Before leaving New Orleans in 1976, I bought one more painting, my last.

I was living in Denver when I read the rave reviews of Sister Gertrude's work in the Corcoran's Black Folk Art in America and when I learned of her death. I wasn't surprised by the glowing comments, nor was I saddened by her death. She had always been a great artist and she had always said that Jesus was her airplane. I know she believed she would fly with him.

Sister Gertrude sang:
Jesus is my air

Plane, you hold
the world in your hand, you
Guide me through the land
Jesus is my air Plane I
say Jesus is my air
Plane We're striving for
that promise land. Come
on, Join our Band let's make
it in that Kingdom land.

As for me, I fly every morning and night because the first and last beautiful objects I see are her paintings, reminding me of her raw vision and energy. She was a goddess at whose creativity I marvel.

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