Norval Morrisseau, Thunderbird Shaman Teaching People, acrylic on canvas, 69 x 104 inches, signed, 1990. (KINSMAN ROBINSON GALLERIES)
Such descriptions, of course, ignore the likes of Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven and place Mr. Morrisseau in a league with the most innovative artist of the 20th century. The hyperbole is forgivable. They are part of the legend – the story of a true primitive who emerged from the Northern Ontario wilderness to awe the sophisticates in the major art centres of the world. Indeed, Mr. Morrisseau remains the only native artist ever to have had a solo exhibition (for three months, starting in February, 2006) in the 127-year history of the National Gallery of Canada.
Art dealer Jack Pollock, one of the many who claimed to have discovered Mr. Morrisseau, was also part of the legend but had a better grasp on his contribution. “He invented a visual vocabulary that never existed before him,” Mr. Pollock said before his death in 1992. “He gave the demi-gods of his people an image.”
Mr. Morrisseau could properly lay claim to being the creator and spiritual leader of the Woodland Indian art movement, not only in Canada but in the northeast United States. He developed his style independent of the influence of any other artist and was the first to depict Ojibwa legends and history for the non-native world.
He broke the taboos of his people by revealing sacred stories, but believed it was his mission to put his heritage before the modern world so it could be kept alive. He was “a living bridge to the past,” said Donald Robinson of Toronto’s Kinsman Robinson Galleries, his major dealer for more than 15 years.
Three generations of native artists have followed in his footsteps, producing variations of the Morrisseau style using heavy black outlines to enclose colourful, flat shapes. Many of these artists have become wealthy in the process but such success was denied Mr. Morrisseau, who never quite escaped the poverty into which he was born.
“To this day, I don’t know how we made a living,” he wrote in an article published in The Globe and Mail in 1979. “You see, that sense of real necessity is not a thing that most people in white society know anything about.” He was raised by his grandfather who was “the most influential person in the whole of my life and also a good provider. We always had moose meat in the house. Also oranges, but no bananas.”
Born near Thunder Bay to a family living on the Ojibwa Sand Point Reserve on Lake Nipigon, he was baptized Jean-Baptiste Norman Henry Morrisseau. The oldest of five sons, he went to school for six years, but only finished Grade 2. “You see, the first year you get there, they put you in kindergarten,” he once wrote. “The next year you come back and they put you in kindergarten again. Next thing you know, you are in Grade 1. Then, the following year, you start Grade 1 all over again. Maybe you stay in Grade 1 three or four years.”
He was brought up by both his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a shaman who schooled him in the traditional ways of his culture while his grandmother, a Catholic, made it her business that he was familiar with Christian beliefs. By all accounts, it was the conflict between the two cultures that influenced his outlook and what would later become his art.
Over the years, legends have developed around Mr. Morrisseau. According to one story, he became perilously ill at 19. A visit to the doctor did nothing and a medicine woman was summoned. A renaming ceremony was performed (Anishnaabe tradition holds that a giving powerful name to someone near death can rally strength and save a life). He was renamed Copper Thunderbird, and recovered. Later, he would use it to sign his paintings.
Somewhere along the way, he developed a fondness for alcohol. When Mr. Pollock first met him in the summer of 1962, he was drunk. The artist demanded that Mr. Pollock look at his work. Mr. Pollock was impressed and was interested in mounting an exhibit, but Mr. Morrisseau wanted to sell his works on the spot for $5 each. Mr. Pollock talked him out of it and a subsequent showing at the Pollock Gallery sold out within 24 hours, netting the artist $3,000. Time magazine declared that “few exhibits in Canadian history have touched off a greater immediate stir than Morrisseau’s” and predicted that he would launch “a vogue as chic as that of the Cape Dorset Eskimo’s prints.”
He continued to live in the area north of Lake Superior and apparently squandered much of his money. In 1978 – a year in which he was appointed to the Order of Canada – when someone jokingly suggested that he throw a garden party, just like the Queen, he bought an antique silver tea service and a set of Royal Crown Derby china to entertain 21 of his friends, colleagues and admirers in his chair-filled wilderness garden. Each was given a rare American buffalo nickel as a gift and a Morrisseau original drawing.
Over the years, he remained a master of the primitive school of art. In 1981, Globe and Mail art critic John Bentley Mays described Mr. Morrisseau’s as wholly appropriate to the context of his background. “His styles, situations and subjects are exactly what we would expect in the work of a self-taught artist who has lived most of his life in northern Ontario. There is little attention to figurative modelling in these pictures, no delving into the problems of perspective or pictorial depth. Using his small repertoire of techniques, he presents stylized versions of what he knows: the bears, loons, fish and turtles that live in the forests and ponds, and the people in the town around him.
“But these are not ordinary forests, ponds and people. Morrisseau’s art transports us into a shadowy archetypal realm where ordinary things are wonderful. In his visionary lakes swim mighty fish, armed with bolts of spiritual lightening. A bear spirit — a dragon-like chimera spangled with bright eyes and brilliant colours — suddenly stands in your path.”
For all his success, Mr. Morrisseau allowed his career and his life to descend relentlessly. In 1987, he was discovered wandering the downtown streets of Vancouver, sleeping in alleys and selling his sketches for the price of a bottle of booze. “To get drunk in Vancouver is the most beautiful thing there is,” he was quoted as saying.
Years later, after he had dried out, Mr. Morrisseau told The Globe that his drinking binges in part reflected his resentment over “never getting my fair share.” Still, he said he enjoyed life on the Vancouver streets: “I met a lot of nice people. I might even do it again – without the booze – so I can remember them all clearly.”
Around that time, he met Gabor Vadas, a young man with problems, and the two formed a bond. Mr. Morrisseau believed that Mr. Vadas was his son and the younger man presents himself as such. However, the relationship was never ratified “through the legal courts,” according to Mr. Vadas’s wife, Michele, “but certainly as far as from a traditional native and spiritual point of view [Mr. Vadas was his son] because they take their adoptions very seriously … They never lost faith in each other and have always been very loyal to each other.”
In 1989, Mr. Morrisseau was the only Canadian painter invited to exhibit at the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris during the bicentennial of the French Revolution. After seeing the works of Van Gogh and Picasso, he decided they were “all greys” and returned home to paint “some real colour.”
He first exhibited with the Kinsman Robinson Galleries the following year. Wearing a new silk suit, he arrived for the opening in a white limousine. The exhibition sold out.
At 65, Mr. Morrisseau developed Parkinson’s disease but continued to paint. “My hands don’t shake when I hold a brush,” he told Chris Dafoe of The Globe in 1999.
He had a healthy respect for his own talent. Dr. Henry Weinstein, a doctor in Northern Ontario’s Red Lake district who in the 1950s was among the first to recognize Mr. Morrisseau as a true original, was a friend of Pablo Picasso and once gave a Morrisseau drawing to the Spanish master. On the back, Mr. Morrisseau had written, “From one great artist to another.” Picasso, after looking at the drawing is said to have remarked: “Well, you never know, do you?” – meaning that great art surfaces in unlikely places.
The comparison of the two artists was not entirely inappropriate. Mr. Morrisseau, like Picasso, could draw spontaneously, never lifting his pencil from the paper until the image was complete. “Very few artists in the world have this ability,” Dr. Weinstein said.
Mr. Morrisseau’s early work was created on birch bark or animal hides. Mr. Robinson said he at first punched holes in the bark or hide but was later given paints by Dr. Weinstein.
Mr. Morrisseau believed he was a “born painter” and said that when he started to paint, the images “just come.” He created his designs to beautify the world with colour. “The world needs it,” he said. Colour was a key resource in Mr. Morrisseau’s repertory of symbols. He used connecting lines to depict interdependence. “These paintings only remind you that you’re an Indian,” the artist said. “Inside somewhere, we’re all Indians. So now when I befriend you, I’m trying to get the best Indian, bring out the Indianness in you to make you think everything is scared.”
Less inviolate were his family relationships. Mr. Morrisseau has six (some say seven) adult children from his marriage in 1957 to Harriet Kakegamic, and has claimed at times to have fathered as many as 14 sons and daughters. Over the years, this has resulted in conflict with some of the children. Three months ago, for instance, one of Mr. Morrisseau’s sons, Christian, also an artist, announced the creation of the Morrisseau Family Foundation to, in part, “ensure my family’s heritage and the integrity of my father’s legacy.” A month after this, Mr. Morrisseau issued through Mr. Vadas a press release declaring that he had “not been consulted or in any way involved” with the Morrisseau Family Foundation, “nor do I support it in any way.”
Mr. Morrisseau was a prolific artist before illness slackened his output – it’s been estimated he produced more than 10,000 works in his lifetime. Aided by Mr. Vadas, he battled in recent years against what they alleged were a spate of fakes.
In the meantime, Mr. Vadas and his wife cared for Mr. Morrisseau after the onset of Parkinson’s and Mr. Morrisseau doted like a grandfather on their two children, Kyle and Robin. Earlier in this decade, he spent some time in an extended care facility on Vancouver Island, but for most of this year, he lived with the Vadas family in their house in Nanaimo, B.C.
All things considered, Mr. Morrisseau was proud of his place in Canadian art history. “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,” he said. “I want to make paintings full of colour, laughter, compassion and love … If I can do that, I can paint for 100 years.”
He spent much of his last years in a wheelchair, deprived of intelligible speech. He suffered at least two strokes.
In October, Mr. Morrisseau travelled to Northern Ontario to receive an honorary degree from the University of Sudbury, and had planned to go to New York to attend the opening of his one-man show at New York’s George Gustav Heye Center, which is part of the National Museum of the American Indian. Instead, he became ill in Toronto and was admitted to hospital.
Norval Morrisseau was born Norman Henry Morrisseau at Beardmore, Ont., on March 13, 1931. He died yesterday in Toronto General Hospital of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by numerous children.
The public may visit Mr. Morrisseau’s open casket Thursday and Friday this week from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. each day at Jerrett Funeral Homes, 1141 St. Clair Ave. W., Toronto. It is anticipated that he will be buried near Beardmore, Ont., or Thunder Bay.
This obituary was prepared by Donn Downey (who died in April, 2001), with files from James Adams.