NORVAL MORRISSEAU (1931-2007)
"We Are All One in Spirit"
- Statement by assembly of First Nations Natioal Chief Phil Fontaine on
passing of renowned OJIB way artist Norval Morrisseau.-
ONTARIO Dec. 4th, 2007 /CNW Telbec/ - "It is with great sadness that I
acknowledge the passing of Norval Morrisseau today after a lengthy battle with
Parkinson's disease at the age of 75," said National Chief Phil Fontaine.
"Norval was probably best known for inventing the Woodlands style of art. His
success did not come without a price. He faced many personal struggles over
the years. We are very grateful for his contributions to First Nations, Canada
and the world."
"Norval Morrisseau was the key figure at the centre of an Indigenous art
movement in Canada in the 1960s that broke through stereotypes, racism and
discrimination in that era. He struggled to have his art shown in fine art
galleries," said National Chief Fontaine. "And he succeeded. His work has been
on display in the most prestigious museums in Canada and around the world. It
was a tremendous breakthrough when his art was featured prominently at Expo
'67 in Montreal as part of the "Indian" pavilion."
Morrisseau received an honorary degree from the Royal Academy of Arts and was
a member of The Order of Canada, the highest civilian honor in Canada. In 1989
he was the only Canadian painter to be invited to participate in the
"Magicians of The Earth" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris,
France. He also had numerous solo shows across Canada and the US. Most
recently, Morrisseau travelled to Ottawa where he was honoured by
parliamentarians upon receiving a 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award by the
National Aboriginal Achievement
"Norval Morrisseau's courageous and often controversial approach to his work
was instrumental in encouraging First Nations people to know their
spirituality, history and culture in order to better understand themselves. He
taught us to be proud of who we are. He inspired countless other First Nations
people to pursue a career in the arts. His legacy will remain with us and
continue to inspire all Canadians for many generations to come," added
National Chief Phil Fontaine. "
On behalf of the Assembly of First Nations, we offer our condolences to the
family and friends of Norval Morrisseau."
- The Assembly of First Nations is the national organization representing
First Nations citizens in Canada -
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Morrisseau ,also known as Copper Thunderbird, was an Aboriginal Canadian
artist. Known as the "Picasso of the North", in his works he depicted the
legends of his people, the cultural and political tensions between native
Canadian and European traditions, his existential struggles, and his deep
spirituality and mysticism. His style is characterized by thick black outlines
and bright colors. He founded the Woodlands School of Canadian art.
An Anishinaabe, he was born March 14, 1932 on the Sand Point Ojibway reserve
near Beardmore, Ontario. Some sources quote him as saying that he was born in
Fort William, now part of Thunder Bay, Ontario, on the same date in 1931. His
full name is Jean-Baptiste Norman Henry Morrisseau, but he signs his work
using the Cree syllabics writing (Ozaawaabiko-binesi, unpointed:,"Copper/Brass
[Thunder]Bird"), as his pen- name for his Anishnaabe name (Miskwaabik
Animikii, unpointed:, "Copper Thunderbird").
In accordance with Anishnaabe tradition, he was raised by his maternal
grandparents. His grandfather, Moses Potan Nanakonagos, a shaman,
taught him the traditions and legends of his people. His grandmother, Grace
Theresa Potan Nanakonagos, was a devout Catholic and from her
he learned the tenets of Christianity. The contrast between these two
religious traditions became an important factor in his intellectual and
At the age of six, he was sent to a Catholic residential school, where
students were educated in the European tradition, native culture was
repressed, and the use of native language was forbidden. After two years he
returned home and started attending a local community school.
Man Changes Into Thunderbird (1989)At the age of 19, he became very sick. He
was taken to a doctor but his health kept deteriorating. Fearing for his life,
his mother called a medicine-woman who performed a renaming ceremony: She gave
him the new name Copper Thunderbird. According to Anishnaabe tradition, giving
a powerful name to a dying person can give them new energy and save their
Morrisseau recovered after the ceremony and from then on always signed his
works with his new name.
An early advocate of Morrisseau was the anthropologist Selwyn Dewdney, who
became very interested in Morrisseau's deep knowledge of native culture and
myth. Dewdney was the first to take his art to a wider public.
Jack Pollock, a Toronto art dealer, helped expose Morrisseau's art to a wider
audience in the 1960s. The two met in 1962 while Pollock was teaching a
painting workshop in Beardmore. Struck by the discovery of Morrisseau's art,
he immediately organized an exhibition of his work at his Toronto gallery.
One of Morrisseau's early commissions was for a large mural in the Indians of
Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, a revolutionary exhibit voicing the
dissatisfaction of the First Nations People of Canada with their social and
In 1972, he was caught in a hotel fire in Vancouver and suffered serious burns
on three-quarters of his body. In that occasion he had a vision of Jesus
encouraging him to be a role model through his art. He converted to the
apostolic faith and started introducing Christian themes in his art. A year
later he was arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour and was incarcerated
for his own protection. He was assigned an extra cell as studio and was
allowed to attend a nearby church.
In 1978, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.
In 1979, he created the Thunderbird School of Shamanistic Arts. This "school
of artists" was Morrisseau's way of responding to the Woodland School
phenomena, which he claimed was merely a "Media" creation, and not by his
design. The Thunderbird school which he envisioned and created was comprised
of Morrisseau, and his three apprentice Shaman artists: Ritchie "Stardreamer"
Sinclair, Carl "Sunshine" Henderson and Brian "Little Hummingbird" Marion.
In 2005 and 2006, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa organized a
retrospective of his work. This was the first time that the Gallery dedicated
a solo exposition to a native artist.
The artist's principal dealer, Kinsman Robinson Galleries, has represented
Norval Morrisseau and his artwork for the last eighteen years.
In 2006, the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society began to compile a database of
Norval Morrisseau paintings to discredit many prevalent Morrisseau forgeries.
This committee, not affiliated with any commercial gallery or art dealer,
comprises highly respected members of the academic, legal and Aboriginal
communities. It is charged with creating a complete catalogue raisonné of
Norval Morrisseau artwork.
In his final months of his life, the artist was confined to a wheelchair in a
residence in Nanaimo, British Columbia. He was unable to paint due to his poor
health. He died of cardiac arrest—complications arising from Parkinson's
disease on December 4, 2007 in Toronto General Hospital.
Morrisseau was a self-taught artist. He developed his own techniques and
artistic vocabulary which captured ancient legends and images that came to him
in visions or dreams. He was originally criticized by the native community
because his images disclosed traditional spiritual knowledge. Initially he
painted on any material that he could find, especially birchbark, and also
moose hide. Dewdney encouraged him to use earth-tone colors and traditional
material, which he thought were appropriate to Morrisseau's native style.
The subjects of his art in the early period were myths and traditions of the
Anishnaabe people. He is acknowledged to have initiated the Woodland School of
native art, where images similar to the petroglyphs of the Great Lakes region
were now captured in paintings and prints.
His later style changed: he used more standard material and the colors became
progressively brighter, eventually obtaining a neon-like brilliance. The
themes also moved from traditional myth to depicting his own personal
struggles. He also produced art depicting Christian subjects: during his
incarceration, he attended a local church where he was struck by the beauty of
the images on stained-glass windows. Some of his paintings, like Indian Jesus
Christ, imitate that style and represent characters from the Bible with native
After he joined the new age religion Eckankar in 1976, he started representing
on canvas its mystical beliefs. The cover art for the Bruce Cockburn album,
Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws, is a painting by Norval Morrisseau. He was made
a Member of the Order of Canada in 1978.