Norval Morrisseau (called Miskwaabik Animiiki in Anishinaabemowin, meaning “Copper Thunderbird”), CM, artist (born 14 March 1931 or 1932 in Northern Ontario; died 4 December 2007 in Toronto, ON). Morrisseau was a self-taught artist of Ojibwe ancestry. He is best known for originating the Woodland School style in contemporary Indigenous art. His deep spirituality and cultural connections guided his career, which spanned five decades. Morrisseau is considered a trailblazer for contemporary Indigenous artists across Canada.
Norval Morrisseau was raised on the Sand Point reserve (now Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation), on the southeast shores of Lake Nipigon. He was the eldest of five children. Morrisseau was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a shaman who taught him about Anishinaabe culture and spirituality. His grandmother taught him about the Catholic religion. These two aspects had a significant influence on his future artistic works.
Morrisseau was sent to St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School in Fort William, Ontario, at the age of six. These institutions forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and placed them in schools that outlawed ceremonial traditions and expression. Morrisseau later attended a public school near Beardmore before leaving school altogether when he was 10.
Morrisseau became very ill at the age of 19. His family held a healing ceremony. During that service, Morrisseau received the name Miskwaabik Animiiki, meaning Copper Thunderbird. The Thunderbird appears in several of Morrisseau’s works, including Untitled (Thunderbird Transformation), circa 1958–60 and Man Changing into Thunderbird (1977), a six-panel installation.
Woodland School Style of Art
Norval Morrisseau originated the pictographic style, or what is commonly referred to as the Woodland School. It is sometimes also referred to as “x-ray art” because of the way it emphasizes the outlines of people, creatures and objects. This style is a fusion of European and Ojibwe painting styles. The colours used in this style are bright. Morrisseau originally painted on birchbark, but many artists since have used other materials, including acrylic, watercolour, and gouache on wood, canvas or paper. Several well-known Indigenous artists have painted in the Woodland style, including Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy and Alex Janvier.
Norval Morrisseau’s friend, artist Susan Ross, spoke to Jack Pollock of the Pollock Gallery in Toronto about Morrisseau’s emerging art. After having met him and seeing his work, Pollock agreed to showcase Morrisseau’s art in 1962. It was the first time that an Indigenous artist in Canada had their work exhibited in a contemporary art gallery. At the time, very few Indigenous peoples made art to be included and displayed in mainstream society. Most Indigenous art was viewed with an anthropological lens rather than as modern art.
Morrisseau’s art received mixed reviews. Some critics described it as modern while others saw it as “primitive.” Art historian Carmen Robertson has argued that Morrisseau himself was stereotyped by art critics and the press. They romanticized him and his art, upholding stereotypes of Indigenous peoples in popular culture, such as that of the “Noble Savage.” His 1964 paintings Self-Portrait Devoured by Demons and Man and Snake are thought to demonstrate the feelings of uncertainty Morrisseau was likely feeling as an emerging Indigenous artist in the contemporary art world.
Nevertheless, Morrisseau’s art continued to attract national attention. Some of his work was displayed in 1965 at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and at what is now the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in 1966. The 1960s would essentially establish Morrisseau as a significant contemporary Indigenous artist and pave the way for other Indigenous creators.
Norval Morrisseau was commissioned to create art for Expo 67 in Montreal. His artwork was to be included in the Indians of Canada Pavilion. His friend and fellow artist Carl Ray finished the piece after a dispute between Morrisseau and the organizers over his original vision for the piece prompted him to abandon it in protest.
In 1968, Morrisseau had his first international exhibition at the Art Gallery of Newport in the United States. He had another in the south of France the following year. Many in the art world began referring to him as the “Picasso of the North” after that exhibition.
Morrisseau was a key member of Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. (PNIAI), which was later known as the Indian Group of Seven. This group served as a rupture in the cultural, political and artistic community and demanded recognition as artists and professionals. They challenged outdated ways of thinking and stimulated a new idea of what contemporary First Nations people were and what their art meant. Along with Morrisseau, the group included Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Alex Janvier, Daphne Odjig, Carl Ray and Joseph Sanchez. Morrisseau was an educator alongside PNIAI members and worked to further spread awareness of contemporary Indigenous artists.
Morrisseau struggled with alcoholism throughout his life. While incarcerated for public drunkenness in Kenora in 1973, Morrisseau continued to paint. There he created one of his most noteworthy works, Indian Jesus Christ (1974). Around that time, Morrisseau was also the subject of two National Film Board of Canada documentaries, The Colours of Pride (1973) and The Paradox of Norval Morrisseau (1974).
In the mid-1970s, Morrisseau became involved in the spiritual movement Eckankar. It involves learning simple exercises that claim to unlock personal truths and help practitioners experience a higher power. Artist and curator Greg Hill once said that “through Eckankar, Morrisseau develops a vocabulary for his shamanism.” The Storyteller: The Artist and His Grandfather (1978) is an example of how Eckankar influenced his art. The two panels of this piece depict his Anishinaabe shaman grandfather and a young Morrisseau. The panel with Morrisseau includes an Eckankar symbol. Critics have argued this demonstrates how Morrisseau saw his shamanic beliefs as different from those of his grandfather. Until the end of his career, Morrisseau framed himself as an artist-shaman.
In 1984, Norval Morrisseau and the Emergence of the Image Makers at the Art Gallery of Ontario celebrated his work and influence in the art world. His work continued to be displayed in national and international exhibits throughout the 1980s. Androgyny, a painting approximately 3.5 m tall by 6 m wide, was installed in the lobby of the then Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada in 1983.
Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Morrisseau began to fade from the public view after the 1980s. However, in 2006, Morrisseau had a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. It was the first time that gallery had held a retrospective exhibit for a contemporary Indigenous artist.
Forgeries of Morrisseau Art
In the early 2000s, Norval Morrisseau identified several forgeries being sold as genuine Morrisseau pieces. Since his death, a well-known case in 2018 involving keyboardist Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies exposed an art-fraud ring in Thunder Bay. Hearn sued a Toronto art gallery after he claimed they sold him a fake Morrisseau. While the case was dismissed, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in 2019 that the art gallery was at fault. The same year, the documentary There Are No Fakes, directed by Jamie Kastner, helped to bring this issue concerning Morrisseau forgeries into the public view.
Honours and Awards
- Canadian Centennial Medal, The Governor General of Canada (1968).
- Member Appointee, Royal Canadian Academy of Art (1973).
- Member, Order of Canada (1978).
- Lifetime Achievement Award (posthumous), National Aboriginal Achievement Awards (now Indspire) (2008).