Mystery Man

A new look at the enigma that was Norval Morrisseau

“I am an Indian,” Norval Morrisseau declared when a journalist asked him who he really was.

The occasion was the first exhibition at a Toronto gallery in 1962 by the 32-year-old unknown Anishinaabe painter—at which every work was sold.

The exhibition marked the beginning of an extraordinary career. Morrisseau would continue to sell everything he produced, have his work included in the collections of most major Canadian museums, see one of his images reproduced on a Canada Post stamp, decorate a pavilion at Expo 67, exhibit at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, receive the Order of Canada, publish a book on Ojibwa legends, be commissioned to paint a cover for Time magazine, become the subject of numerous books and documentaries on his art, and be the first aboriginal artist to have a solo show at the National Gallery of Canada.

He was once considered to be Canada’s premier artist, certainly its most celebrated, if not notorious. Described as a shaman, the Picasso of the North, a self-taught genius, he was also called a mytho-maniac phony, a scoundrel and a drunkard.

Some saw the whole Morrisseau phenomenon as a calculated marketing strategy and construction of a public persona by dealers and art institutions, with the artist complicit in a presentation of naiveté and genius, mysticism and profundity, that would further his career.

Even his name was dual. Born Jean-Baptiste Norman Henry Morrisseau, but commonly Norval, he signed his work in Cree syllabics as Copper Thunderbird.

Much has been written about Morrisseau, most of it scholarly, some anecdotal and some merely sensational. No full biography exists. Armand Garnet Ruffo, a poet, educator and filmmaker of Ojibwa heritage, presents neither orthodox biography nor history in his richly textured and fascinating Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing into Thunderbird, but an impressionistic hybrid, filtered through his own perceptions and imagination. Told in the present tense, interspersed with the author’s poems and retellings of Anishinaabe legends and stories, the book has an immediacy and animation that a standard biography might lack.

The author does make it clear in his introduction that he has broken from everyday realism and rendered an interpretation that resides in a mythic world view. The writing is influenced by the paintings, and the book is grounded in Anishinaabe oral history. The goal was ultimately to pay homage to Norval Morrisseau. However, as Ruffo also points out, stories change with the teller and the telling.

While the book does follow a general chronology, it also twists, turns, shape-shifts and transforms. The subtitle, after all, is Man Changing into Thunderbird.

The basic biographical facts of Norval Morrisseau’s life have been well documented. He was born in 1931 in Northern Ontario on an Ojibwa reserve and mostly raised by his maternal grandparents. He received a rudimentary formal education, including a period at a Catholic residential school. At the age of 19, during a serious illness, he was given the name Copper Thunderbird. While being treated at a sanatorium for tuberculosis at the age of 25, he met his future wife, Harriet Kakegamic. They had seven children together but were formally separated in 1973.

Inspired at a young age by his grandfather’s telling of traditional Anishinaabe oral history and tales, he had begun to make drawings and paintings. Encounters with a number of mentors and patrons led to his successful launch as a professional artist. Throughout his life, Morrisseau was an alcoholic, resulting in periods of jail time, destitution, homelessness and a close brush with death when he suffered serious burns in a skid row hotel fire in Vancouver. He lived his later years with his adopted family, Gabe and Michele Vadas. In 1994, debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, he had a stroke. He died in 2007, shortly after the retrospective of his work at the National Gallery of Canada.

Morrisseau’s declaration that he was an Indian—the interpretation, and implications, of that statement—remains central to any examination of his life and works. Ruffo gives a powerful context to the milieu in which Morrisseau was born and grew up: traditional economies and support systems in ruins, abject poverty and alcohol abuse, a disregard and denigration of Native culture, the residential school system that broke apart families and suppressed original languages and cosmologies, official policies of forced assimilation, the lack of the vote, racism, indifference, cultural amnesia, self-hate.

By the time of Morrisseau’s artistic debut in Toronto, much was changing. A world-wide movement of political and social decolonization was underway. The civil rights movement and the American Indian movement were gathering momentum. In Canada, the franchise for Native people had been achieved in 1960, the Indian Act was being revised. The prohibition against traditional spiritual practices, which had been in place since 1884, was dropped, although the residential school system would persevere until 1969.

No historical period is ever uncomplex—except in retrospect—but the prevailing zeitgeist in Canada at that time created a particularly open arena for the reception of Morrisseau the Indian and Morrisseau the artist. The arts were undergoing radical challenges and shifts, cultural diversity and social issues were coming to the forefront, and a new nationalism and pride became prominent as the centenary of Canada approached, culminating in the Expo 67 world’s fair in Montreal, which had its very own daring and contentious Indians of Canada Pavilion.

Ruffo provides a detailed background to the meteoric arrival of Morrisseau in the art scene through his descriptions of encounters with three important early patrons, all of them artists to a degree, who recognized and encouraged the young artist’s talent. Known locally for his art, which could be found for sale in various stores, Morrisseau came to the attention of expatriate Montrealers Joseph and Esther Weinstein. They had both studied art in Paris and elsewhere, and had a library of art books and a collection of non-European objects and sculptures. Each had a background in avant-garde art circles and were aware of the dialogue between Primitive art and Modernism.

The subject matter of Morrisseau’s paintings at that time had their origin in the stories of Anishinaabe traditions and myths related to him by his grandfather, subject matter that he would develop and interpret for the rest of his career. As Ruth B. Phillips has pointed out in the 2006 catalogue for the National Gallery exhibition Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist, Morrisseau’s exposure to the Weinsteins’ collection and library must have made him aware that objects very similar to traditional Ojibwa material culture were admired, valued and collected in the world at large. Such an awareness, and seeing his own work taking a place in the Weinstein’s home, would have been an important affirmation of the worth of his own traditions and his talent.

Around the same time, Morrisseau met Selwyn Dewdney, artist, teacher and anthropologist, who was connected to the Royal Ontario Museum and was conducting field research into Native rock paintings around the Great Lakes. Dewdney saw the link between his own research and the work of the living artist. Over time he encouraged Morrisseau to develop his subject matter, to think of himself as a professional modern artist and not a purveyor of ethnic crafts for the tourist trade, and introduced him to markets for his work.

By far the most significant encounter for Morrisseau was with Jack Pollock, a painter who ran a gallery in Toronto and was in the north teaching various workshops on a government program. For Pollock, the meeting was momentous, as he has described in his own writings, and he would quickly become Morrisseau’s dealer, friend and champion. For a time their two names would be inextricably linked. Pollock stage-managed Morrisseau’s first exhibitions, and much of the media coverage and introductions to influential clients (a normal practice in the art world), and eventually arranged the publication of a lavish coffee table book on Morrisseau’s work.

Morrisseau’s reception was both spectacular and controversial—two words that would be linked with both the man and his work throughout his life. His work was seen as both modern and primitive, either authentic or juiced-up folk art, a momentary sensation for the chic viewer or the achievements of a powerful artist. What is clear though is that Morrisseau confounded the expectations of everybody around him.

Throughout his career Morrisseau frequently stated that one of his aims was to be a preserver of Indian culture, to be a spokesperson for his people, to make visible and share their myths and world view. His approach was highly personal, but also influential on his artist contemporaries and later generations of First Nations artists.

The controversies surrounding Morrisseau continued after his death. Gabe Vardas, named in the will as the sole heir, faced a legal challenge from Morrisseau’s family. Rival foundations jostled to be the guardians of the artist’s legacy and various galleries squabbled over who would have the rights to market the work.

And then there was the question of purported forgeries, leading to lawsuits over the authentication of paintings. The Ontario Provincial Police laid charges in 2014 against an alleged ring of forgers. That fakes exist is undoubted, but just which works might be forgeries is an ongoing debate. Even Morrisseau himself, incapacitated by illness in his last years, could not be relied on to verify certain works—not surprising for an artist who was so prolific. Of course, in all of this, large sums of money are at stake.

Ruffo is contemptuous of the dealers and collectors, the so-called apprentices and protectors, and the hustlers who hovered around Morrisseau. He likens them to a circus of clowns—people always trying to strike up a deal.

The author is also saddened by the flurry of accusations and litigation that resulted after the artist’s passing. He characterizes it as a storm that as yet shows no sign of light.

Ruffo notes Morrisseau’s youthful exposure to pictographs, petroglyphs and sacred birch bark scrolls, emphasizing the profound importance of the traditions and myths conveyed to Morrisseau by his grandfather—and he brings many of them to life in his own vivid retellings. Those stories and images were seen as visions of ancient knowledge transmitted by a shaman from a place where myths are alive.

Morrisseau called himself a shaman, and it is a term generally accepted by those who were close to him as well as by scholars and art historians. He was not a medicine man, or sorcerer or healer, or an initiated religious practitioner. But he was someone who used his visions and dreams to articulate his world view and promote it as something greater than what had until then been considered primitive superstitions.

But even his shamanism was controversial. As Greg A. Hill wrote in the National Gallery catalogue in 2006, “Is NM shamanism the continuation and development of ancient ways, transmitted to him through the oral tradition by his grandfather; or perhaps a personal and unique conglomeration of Anishinaabe traditions, western and eastern religions, and his own creative license; or a carefully constructed public persona … or a combination of all of the above?”

Yet those dreams and visions were an essential part of Morrisseau. Ruffo’s abilities as a poet, and his present tense narrative, are vividly alive in his retellings of many of those visions, notably in the recounting of Morrisseau’s Vision Quest encounter with a bear at the age of twelve and in the bestowing of the name Copper Thunderbird during a bout of rheumatic fever.

It was not only in his aboriginal heritage that Morrisseau found his visions. There was also the ineradicable influence of his Catholic upbringing, his frequent bouts of intoxication and his later interest in Eckankar, a spiritual movement founded in 1965 in America that offers the development of higher states of consciousness, including the belief that the soul can separate from the body and travel freely in other planes of reality.

There is little doubt that Morrisseau saw himself as a mystical and spiritual being. In this context it is worth quoting the artist directly, in his own flamboyant and inimitable words: “I am a born Artist a Shaman a Mystic and Seerer, a Priest and a Parson of Jesus Christ … I am a Vishionary my deep faith in the Great Overall the God of my Ancestors and the same Christian Godhead of my white brothern.”

As Ruffo points out, it was that perception that allowed Morrisseau to paint himself into existence.

The result of many years of work, interviews with countless people who knew the artist and conversations with Morrisseau himself, the book is a singular and original achievement. Ruffo paints a portrait not only of an individual, but of a people, and of a particular time in Canadian history. Instructed by Morrisseau not to leave anything out, he describes both the triumphs and degradations, but always honours the artist. If Ruffo set out to write a homage to the artist, he has succeeded admirably.

It seems to me that, despite the vicissitudes of Morrisseau’s life and all the claims made upon him and for him, he remained true and consistent to his own subject matter—an expression of his religious, mystical reality.

Whatever context one brings to an encounter with Morrisseau’s paintings, there is no denying their power. A reading of the book will expand our understanding, and our engagement with the works. Before I read Ruffo’s book, I knew of Norval Morrisseau, but little about him. There were only the paintings, encountered here and there.

When I went back to look at Morrisseau’s work in the Art Gallery of Ontario, I found the monumental six-panel Man Changing into Thunderbird astonishing and impressive, as powerful, if not more so, than any of the other works in the gallery.

As Morrisseau said after completing the work, “It is me.”