Morgan, Sister Gertrude

A preacher, musician and poet, Morgan was a born artist, although she got a late start. The seventh child of an Alabama farmer with a third-grade education, Gertrude Williams married Will Morgan in 1928 and lived in Georgia. She received a call from God to preach in 1934 and experienced other revelations during her lifelong career as a self-proclaimed missionary. In 1939 she moved to New Orleans, where she set up a children’s home with two other missionaries. What happened to her marriage and husband is unknown.

In the mid-1950s Sister Gertrude received a revelation telling her to use art to illustrate her sermons. About a year later, she felt called to become the “bride of Christ,” after which she began dressing entirely in white. She went out on her own to preach, eventually establishing “The Everlasting Gospel Mission.”

Drawn to the book of Revelation, her vision of New Jerusalem became her most important theme, and was often illustrated with images of multi-storied houses, gardens (which often resemble the one next to her mission in New Orleans), and Sister Gertrude herself, dressed in white and accompanying “Dada Jesus.”

Monza, Louis

Self-taught painter, sculptor and printmaker Louis Monza was born in Turate, Italy, in 1897. At the age of seven, he was apprenticed to a master furniture maker. In 1913 he immigrated to the US, where he held a variety of odd jobs including restaurant dishwasher and water boy for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Although a lifelong pacifist, Monza joined the army in 1917 and served in Panama during World War I to speed up his citizenship process.

Following the war, he worked as a house painter until 1937, when he was injured in a fall. During his lengthy convalescence he began making art and continued to do so for the rest of his life. In 1946 Monza moved to California, where he created prints and sculpture as well as drawings and paintings, all of which carried on a monologue of social and political commentary on topics ranging from technology and the aerospace industry to the effects of environmental pollution.

Mertz, Albert “Kid”

A one-time prizefighter, “Kid” Mertz lived in a cinderblock house in the woods near Nowago, MI, which he decorated, along with virtually all his possessions, with colorful paint and witticisms. Most of his career had been spent on an assembly line in Detroit, but after retiring he lived almost entirely off the land, foraging for nuts and berries, fishing and hunting and cultivating a garden. He gathered bottles and cans that motorists threw from their cars and transformed them into striped and polka-dotted vessels, and painted the skulls of fish he took from a stream behind his home. Every shovel or saw he owned bore his painted handiwork and he even painted his shoes and baseball caps. Mertz apparently believed that there was nothing in the world that could not be made more beautiful with paint.

McNellis, Laura Craig

Laura Craig McNellis was born in Nashville, TN, the youngest of four girls, and lived with her family for 41 years. A developmental disability prevented her from going to school with her sisters, so instead she watched her mother refurbish a neglected boarding house into a single-family home.

After spontaneously making a painting following a shopping outing, she began depicting her expanding environment, including subjects such as buildings, cars, and planes. By the time she was an adolescent; McNellis was a relentless painter and often worked throughout the night. Her immense oeuvre was later stored in numerous boxes around the family’s home.

Beginning in 1985, she ceased painting for fifteen years, then resumed making her art once again. She currently works at Studio XI/ Signature Home in Morgantown, North Carolina.

McCarthy, Justin

Justin McCarthy’s life has the peculiar twists of a riches-to-rags-to-recognition story. Unfailing in his belief that he was a talented painter, his work was neither understood nor appreciated until 40 years after he started creating it.

Born to a wealthy family in Weatherly, Pennsylvania, tragedy suddenly struck the family in 1908 with the death of his father, which left the family in financial ruin. Mrs. McCarthy turned to teaching to support herself and her teenage son as they continued to live in the family home. Justin helped generate income by cultivating the estate’s gardens and orchards to sell fruits and vegetables at local markets.

Not giving up on a future for her son, Floretta McCarthy saved enough money to send Justin to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He passed his first year exams in 1911, but in his second year he had a nervous breakdown. In 1915, he was admitted to Rittersville State Hospital for the Insane and remained there for the next five years.

During this time McCarthy began to create art. He would later say, when describing the delusional state in which he spent most of this period in his life that, “I forgot who I was.” While hospitalized, McCarthy began to draw, often signing his works with names like “Prince Dashing” or “Gaston Deauville.” He only showed his early work to his mother, who continued to be encouraging and supportive.

McCarthy’s mother died in 1940, but he continued to live in their home, earning money by selling a variety of produce and even liniment. He tried his hand at a number of jobs: working in a warehouse, at a cement company carrying bags of cement, and as a chocolate mixer. During World War II, he worked at Bethlehem Steel as a machinist’s assistant, but was let go soon after the war. After 1950, his primary medium became oil paints. Rooms in the old mansion were closed off one by one as they became full of work and other items, until Justin was living in two rooms, heated by a kerosene stove, where he slept on a cot. He occasionally exhibited his work at outdoor fairs, but went largely unnoticed until he was discovered at a local outdoor art show in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, by watercolor artist Dorothy Strauser. She and her husband collected and promoted McCarthy’s work and remained his close friends until his death in 1977.

Maldonado, Alexander

Alexander Aramburo Maldonado drew his first picture when he was 60 years old. Born in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico, Maldonado told his own story: “I had school in Mexico for about two years, so when I came [to California] in 1911, I had to learn English. My father died in 1914, so I had to help and sold newspapers—early in the morning and afternoon for 2 cents a paper!—around the time of [San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International] Exposition. I also helped the milkman take care of his horse and stuff like that.”

Maldonado was a shipyard worker from the age of 16, a professional boxer who claimed to have never lost a fight, and later a production worker for Western Can Company.  He never married, and from 1950 until her death in 1985 he shared a little house in Bernal Heights, a working class neighborhood in San Francisco, with his sister Carmen.

Lamora, Brian

Brian Lamora has spent most of this life in Bristol, Rhode Island.  He has Down syndrome and receives services from Living in Fulfilling Environments (L.I.F.E.) Inc., an agency that provides residential and vocational programs for adults with developmental disabilities.  Lamora is employed at Top Drawer Art at The BRASS, an art studio and gallery that is one of L.I.F.E.’s vocational sites.  He is a dedicated artist who has been actively producing work for a number of years, while also employed for 15 years at a local supermarket as a grocery bagger.

Lamora is one of The BRASS’s most meticulous artists. He begins by outlining complex geometric designs and then meticulously fills in each small segment as the drawings are further added to, divided and layered to create mandala-like structures of pulsing color.

Jimenez, Ariel “Pajarito”

“Pajarito” Jimenez, a Panamanian of African descent, began painting after being introduced to Taller Portobelo, an artists’ cooperative studio in Portobelo, Panama, dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the cimarrones (“wild ones”)—Africans who liberated themselves in wars against the Spanish enslavers—and to the conservation of the traditions of their descendants, los Congos, in works of art.

Jimenez’s passion for painting has led him to explore a number of Congo subjects and themes. Several years ago he began interviewing the elders of his village in search of the names of deceased Congos who had figured prominently in local history. The stories they told and the descriptions they gave became subject matter for a series of paintings. Narrative depictions of Congo ritual traditions form another important theme that has been repeated in Jimenez’s work. This is not surprising since he has assumed a number of important roles in Congo ceremonies including Juan de Dioso (St. John of God, patron saint of the Congos) and Pajarito (“Little Bird,” the messenger).

Holley, Lonnie

Lonnie Holley was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1950, the seventh of 27 children. He persevered through a difficult life of poverty, depression and familial strife. He began making art in 1979, carving tombstones for his sister’s two children who died in a house fire from blocks of a soft sandstone-like industrial by-product of cast iron molding that were discarded in piles by a foundry near his sister’s house.

Holley believes that divine intervention led him to the material and inspired his artwork. Holley’s first work consisted primarily of gravestones, but it was not long before his yard near the Birmingham Airport was overflowing with thousands of his sandstone sculptures. He later began working with other found materials such as discarded wire, scrap materials, and wooden objects and eventually began to paint.

Holley first gained wider attention for his art in 1981, when he took his work to the Birmingham Museum of Art. The director of the Museum was so impressed that he contacted a friend at the Smithsonian Institution, who was organizing an exhibition of Appalachian artists. Holley was included in this exhibition, More Than Land and Sky, which traveled to museums throughout the region.

Hawkins, William

As proudly inscribed on most of his paintings, William Hawkins was born in Kentucky on July 27, 1895, though he spent much of his adult life in and around Columbus, Ohio, where he first moved in 1916 to avoid a shotgun wedding. Hawkins worked tirelessly at numerous jobs—often simultaneously—ranging from breaking horses and running numbers, to industrial steel casting and truck driving. He served in the Army during World War One, mostly digging graves in French military cemeteries for fallen American soldiers. Hawkins began painting in the 1930s, though he only began dedicating himself exclusively to art making around 1979.

Typically painting with a single brush and using semi-gloss house paint enamels on large plywood and Masonite surfaces, he often worked from his own black-and-white photographs of buildings and animals, boldly articulating his unique, expressionistic interpretations of architectural forms, religious subjects, and nature studies in bright colors and broad, patterned brushstrokes. Collage and the incorporation of found objects often characterize Hawkins’s work, as does his ubiquitous, bold signature and painted frames.

By the time of his death in 1990, Hawkins had completed some 500 paintings and pencil drawings (not counting his lost early pieces), revealing a gradual turn toward human figuration in his later years.