Norval Morriseau – Artist, Storyteller and Picasso of the North

Known as the ‘Picasso of the North’, Norval Morriseau connected art lovers to the spiritual world of his people. He founded a Woodlands style of painting that had been rarely seen outside of native communities. Art and life didn’t come easy for Norval, he fought many battles through his years on earth.

Born on March 14, 1932, on the Sand Point Ojibway reserve near Beardmore, ON,  Norval was raised by his maternal grandparents. His childhood home was unique from many in his community, his grandfather was a Shaman and taught the young boy the stories and teachings of his people, while his grandmother was a devout Catholic and from her, he learned the Christian faith. This hybrid of spiritual teachings would later shape Norval’s art and personal beliefs.

Like most Aboriginal children of his time, a six-year-old Norval was sent to the nearby Catholic residential school. These schools were meant to drive native culture out of the young students and to teach them the culture and beliefs of white society. Norval would spend two years at the school before returning home to attend the local school.

Throughout Norval’s life, his health was always a concern. At the age of 19, he became very sick. Traditional medicine did not seem to make his health improve, eventually, his mother called a local medicine woman. The medicine woman performed a renaming ceremony. It was during this ritual that Norval was given his Ojibwa name; Copper Thunderbird. It was common for the dying to receive a powerful name, this was to give them strength and courage in their upcoming journey through the afterlife. Luckily, Norval recovered, the power and beauty of his spiritual Ojibwa name would eventually be a focal point of his art. It would eventually appear in syllabics on his paintings.

Another health scare would result in Norval meeting his future wife in 1956. While recovering from tuberculosis at the Fort William Sanitarium in present-day Thunder Bay, Norval met a young woman named Harriet Kakegamic with whom he would eventually marry and they would have seven children, Victoria, Michael, Peter, David, Lisa, Eugene, and Christian.

Norval’s art career really began when he first met Selwyn Dewdney, an artist and anthropologist. The two immediately hit it off; Norval was interested in Dewdney’s art, while Dewdney was drawn to Norval’s deep knowledge of native culture and myth. Dewdney would eventually help take Norval Morriseau’s art to the public.

Meanwhile, Norval faced elders within his own community who were upset with him sharing their traditional art outside their borders. Despite the resistance, Norval received visions from grandfathers in the spiritual world encouraging him to continue.

Another instrumental person in Norval’s early art career was a Toronto art dealer named Jack Pollock. The two met in 1962 while Pollock was teaching art in Beardmore, during this time Pollock would make a trip to Norval’s home to view his artwork. Pollock was instantly drawn to Norval range of colours and imagery. Soon, Pollock arranged for Norval’s work to be viewed at his busy Toronto gallery.

The art world’s spotlight shone brightly on Norval Morriseau throughout the 1960s’. His large mural for Expo 67 at the Indians of Canada Pavilion shared the frustrations of Canadian Aboriginals to a worldwide audience.

Art lovers were fascinated with Norval’s pictographic style. The fusion of European easel painting and traditional Ojibwa art was something truly unique and interesting. Morriseau was the first artist of First Nation ancestry to break through the Canadian professional white-art barrier.

The 1970s’ were a period of extreme highs and lows for Norval. A Vancouver hotel fire in 1972 left severe burns on three-quarters of Norval’s body. His problems with drinking increased and his marriage ended with Harriet.  He would eventually be arrested for having drunk and disorderly behaviour, this would get him incarcerated for his own protection. Luckily, the officials at the jail gave him an extra cell to serve as a studio space. Things in his professional career were going much better, his work was influencing generations of artists across Canada. The decade ended with Morriseau being invited to become a Member of the Order of Canada and also the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

Eventually, Norval developed Parkinson’s disease and in 1994 a stroke would further hinder his health. He began to work with his younger son  Christian Morriseau and help him develop into a nationally-regarded artist in his own right.

During the final years of his life, he received some of the finest art honours the nation has to offer; including a successful retrospect of his work at the National Gallery of Canada. It was the first time the gallery gave a solo exposition of a native Canadian’s work.

Norval Morriseau passed away in Toronto on December 4, 2007. He was buried next to Harriet in a private ceremony on Anishinaabe land.

Norval’s legacy lives in his work. He was able to capture the stories and legends of his people in a truly beautiful form. His artwork is extremely valuable today and his techniques are studied by artists across this country.