Shaman and Disciples by Norval Morrisseau (1979).
When discussing Indigenous art in Canada, it will not take very long before the name Norval Morrisseau comes up. By the time he passed away in 2007 at the age of 76, Morrisseau had obtained titles like “Picasso of the North,” international acclaim, he inspired countless of artists over the years, and today his artwork hangs in major galleries across the country. His art was truly original, though often paradoxical at times; as was the man himself.
Morrisseau was born on March 14, 1931 and was raised by his maternal grandparents, Moses and Grace Theresa Potan Nanakonagos, on the Sand Point Reserve near Lake Nipigon in Northern Ontario. While Morrisseau’s grandmother was a devout Catholic, his grandfather had a huge impact on the artist. He was a shaman who taught Morrisseau about Anishinaabe culture and history. This clash between Anishinaabe and Christian narratives greatly influenced his art and worldview.
Adam and Eve and the Serpent (1974). As a boy, Morrisseau was forced to attend a Catholic residential school. The emotional and sexual abuse he experienced at the school left lasting scars on his life.
Morrisseau was a self-taught artist who began painting in the 1950s. He took the stories and legends of the eastern woodlands that were largely confined to oral tradition and turned them into paintings. This came to be known as the Woodland art style. Through his use of bold colours and thick black outlines, Morrisseau’s work reflected Ojibwe history and culture, his spirituality, and the dissatisfaction Indigenous People felt with their place in the political and social framework of Canada.
A Toronto art dealer named Jack Pollock was instrumental in Morrisseau’s career. He helped the artist gain a wider audience in the 1962 by convincing Morrisseau not to sell his work for $5 a piece and to instead let him display it at the Pollock Gallery. Showings went on to sell out and the artist made $3,000 instead. This was the start of his long-term career. His exhibitions were wildly successful both in Canada and abroad. Throughout his life he was awarded many honours, including but not limited to: The Order Of Canada in 1978 and Grand Shaman of the Ojibwa in 1986. Regarding his success Morrisseau stated, “I may not have a Ferrari, but I’m the first Indian to break into the Canadian art scene and I have forever enriched the Canadian way of life. […] I want to make paintings full of colour, laughter, compassion and love. If I can do that, I can paint for 100 years.”
His Woodland style showcases the souls of humans, animals, and spiritual creatures through his unique “x-ray” paintings. Images are broken into segments of contrasting colours and are both separated and connected by thick black lines that encase skeletal elements and internal organs. His goal was to communicate the values of Ojibwe culture to a non-Indigenous audience and used colour as a way to pull people in. His work has gone on to inspired subsequent generations of artists and holds a firm place in Canadian art history.
Beyond his artwork, Morrisseau’s legacy extends to advocacy as well. He was part of the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., an independent, professional group of Indigenous artists. One of the first of its kind, artist Daphne Odjig brought Alex Janvier, Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Morrisseau, Carl Ray, and Joseph Sanchez together to discuss their dissatisfaction with the place that Indigenous art held in Canadian art. Namely the lack of exhibition opportunities, the view that Indigenous art was a relic of the past, and that it had no place in fine art galleries. Aside from wanting to reverse those issues, “the Indian Group of Seven” (a name given to them by the press) wanted to promote Indigenous art, plus develop bursaries and professional accreditation for artists. Although the group was short-lived (1972-1975), they are credited with inspiring future First Nations art advocacy groups.
Stories from Morrisseau’s Life
Six Panels of Man Changing into Thunderbird at the Art Gallery of Ontario [Source]
Copper Thunderbird – The story goes that when Morrisseau was 19, he became deathly ill and no doctor could help him. Desperate, his mother called in a medicine-woman who performed an Anishinaabe tradition known as a renaming ceremony. When you give a dying person a new, strong name it can give them newfound strength and save their lives. Well guess who recovered after his renaming ceremony? From then on Morrisseau signed his artwork as Copper Thunderbird in Cree symbols.
Homeless in Vancouver – Despite his success, Morrisseau suffered from alcoholism for a good chunk of his life and was part of the reason why he never really escaped the poverty that he grew up in. At one point, it got so bad that he found himself living on the streets of Vancouver, selling sketches to pay for his alcohol habit. He later pulled himself together and when asked about those days, he replied lightheartedly, “I met a lot of nice people. I might even do it again – without the booze – so I can remember them all clearly.”
From One Picasso to Another – In the 1950s, Morrisseau befriended Dr. Henry Weinstein. The doctor, who was actually friends with Pablo Picasso, recognized Morrisseau’s talent early on. He gave Picasso a sketch by Morrisseau who had written on the back, “From one great artist to another.” Reportedly Picasso remarked how great art can come from unlikely places, “Well, you never know, do you?”
“Current Exhibitions – Legends: Norval Morrisseau and Anishinabek “Woodland School” Artists,” McMichael Canadian Art Collection. 2016. Accessed from: https://mcmichael.com/exhibitions/legends/current.cfm
Devine, Bonnie. “Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., Or The “Indian Group Of Seven””. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2015. July 21, 2015. Accessed from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/professional-native-indian-artists-inc/
Downey, Donn, “Norval Morrisseau, 76,” The Globe and Mail. Dec. 04, 2007. Accessed from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/norval-morrisseau-76/article1091047/?page=all
Robertson, Carmen L., Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau: Art and the Colonial Narrative in the Canadian Media. University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg (2016).
“Selwyn Dewdney, Norval Morrisseau & the Ojibwe Pictograph Tradition,” June 8, 2014. Accessed from: https://albinger.me/2014/06/08/selwyn-dewdney-norval-morrisseau-the-ojibwe-pictograph-tradition/