Photo supplied by Thunder Bay Museum
Vibrant life, art
The celebrated Norval Morrisseau is remembered as the leader of the Woodland school of art. His brilliant pieces combine and express elements of Ojibwa culture and spirituality.
Posted: Sunday, July 10, 2016 9:18 am | Updated: 9:24 am, Sun Jul 10, 2016.
LOOKING BACK BY CASSANDRA BLAIR
BY CASSANDRA BLAIR
THUNDER BAY MUSEUM
”I want to make paintings full of colour, laughter, compassion, and love. I want to make paintings that will make people happy, that will change the course of people’s lives. If I can do that, I can paint for a hundred years.”
He didn’t quite make a hundred years, but Norval Morrisseau’s legacy as the forefather of the Canadian Woodland or Anishnabe school of art has endured since his debut at a Toronto gallery in 1962.
Born in Fort William in 1932, Morrisseau created his first pieces of artwork with whatever he could find - wax crayons, house paint, construction paper, or birch bark. According to Ojibwa custom, Morrisseau was sent very early on to live with his grandparents on Lake Nipigon near Beardmore. It was his shaman grandfather who instilled in him knowledge of Ojibwa culture along with a profound sense of spirituality, both of which would come to greatly inspire Morrisseau in his painting.
Morrisseau spent nearly six years away from his home at a residential school in Thunder Bay (St. Joseph’s Boarding School), where he was abused both physically and emotionally. Like his schoolmates, he was cut off from his culture and his language.
“They brainwashed me not to speak Indian,” recalled Morrisseau in the 1979 book The Art of Norval Morrisseau. “And they made damn sure I learned ‘ole Christee’ too! Every five minutes of the day, ‘Get on your knees! Pray!’”
The inciting force for him to start painting more seriously was a vision he had of the Thunderbird, an icon of Ojibwa mythology, who encouraged him to use his art to visually tell the stories of his culture. To set these stories down in paint for outsiders was to break taboo, but Morrisseau felt it was his role to express the legends of the Ojibwa culture to a broad spectrum of people.
In 1962, he met Jack Pollock, a Toronto artist and art dealer who was running art workshops throughout Northern Ontario. It was this meeting that really set Morrisseau’s career in motion. In the decades that followed his impressive debut at Jack Pollock’s 1962 show, Morrisseau experienced periods of productivity, fame, and sobriety, but he also had his share of tougher times helped on by a relentless, recurring battle with alcohol.
But, despite his many lows, Morrisseau always refused to play up the tortured artist angle.
“They speak about this tortured man, me, but I’m not. I’ve had a marvelous time, when I was drinking and now that I’m not, a marvelous time in my life,” he said in a 1979 Maclean’s article.
He was also persistently unapologetic anytime he received public scrutiny about any of his choices. In the late 1980s, he spent some time living on the streets in Vancouver and his response to public concern about this was merely to ask: “Why can’t you wander around the streets? This is a free country to wander around in, or sleep in parks, or whatever.”
Norval Morrisseau was appointed to the Order of Canada in December of 1978. He has been described by Lister Sinclair, co-author of The Art Norval Morrisseau, as “blissfully self-centered, and ruthlessly eclectic.”
During the 1990s, Morrisseau developed Parkinson’s disease. His career slowed considerably before he died in 2007, but his vibrant art - so inspired by and intertwined with his Ojibwa background and his years in Northwestern Ontario - transcends and endures.
Looking Back is written weekly by one of various writers for the Thunder Bay Museum. For further information visit the museum at 425 Donald St. E., or view its website at www.thunderbaymuseum.com.