Frog Medicine Spirit, Owl Land Medicine Spirit gives Humans Curative Powers (1964) Norval Morrisseau

Frog Medicine Spirit,
Owl Land Medicine Spirit gives Humans
Curative Powers

Norval Morrisseau
Gouache on paper, 31” x 47”, 1964

THE ECSTASY OF NORVAL MORRISSEAU
His vibrant work is finally getting the loftiest curatorial attention

My first encounter with fame, even greatness, was at the side door that led out to our garage, when I was about nine years old. I ran to answer a knock one winter evening, but froze before turning the knob when I caught sight of the face peering down at me through the little window: dark and angular, with a narrow mustache, and something about the eyes. I called my father, and he let in the unfamiliar visitor. I learned later that it was Norval Morrisseau, the Ojibway artist, come to talk to my parents about buying his paintings.

This would have been about eight years after Morrisseau’s first gallery show in Toronto, in 1962, caused a sensation in the big-city art scene, and three since he had earned even wider popular acclaim for a huge mural executed at Expo 67. Hard drinking had kept him from saving money, so there he was going door-to-door in the bitter cold. Of course, I didn’t know any of this then, only that a very tall Indian was an unusual visitor at the home of a white family like ours in the northwestern Ontario gold mining town of Cochenour, on the rocky shore of Red Lake. Probably still is.

Morrisseau didn’t stay long that first visit. But he came back on another occasion or two, once memorably decked out in a beaded, fringed jacket. Barefoot after kicking off his boots, he stood on my mother’s new green wall-to-wall carpeting, sizing up the beige walls of our living room, talking grandly about the images he would create to be hung on them. He was an impressive salesman and evidently knew he cut quite a figure when he was at his best, that is, when he wasn’t drinking. Another memory: playing on a summer day and coming suddenly upon Morrisseau, sprawled asleep with the sun on his face, in the wild grass by the lakeshore, an empty bottle nestled, glinting, under one arm.

My parents bought two paintings, one of a group of loons and the other of a finned creature from Ojibway legend, part human, part fish. Many Canadians would recognize the style now, called the Woodlands School – bold flat colours inside sinewy black borders, and the X-ray view into the spiritual guts of the figures. Morrisseau originated that way of painting, profoundly influencing Native artists across Canada. Yet our owning a couple of his pieces wasn’t unusual. Up there in the Red Lake district, where he first painted and peddled his work, his bold acrylics were quite common in ordinary homes. In fact, despite his sustained fame since those early days, enough of his work remains in the area today that a travelling exhibition of locally owned paintings was mounted three years ago by the little Red Lake Museum.

A somewhat bigger show is now in the works, which is what has me thinking about Morrisseau again. The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa is planning a major retrospective of his paintings for early 2006. It’s doubtful Morrisseau will be able to attend the opening: now in his early 70s, he lives in a nursing home in Nanaimo, B.C., suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and no longer able to paint. Few living Canadian artists would even be considered for such an exhibition. But for an Aboriginal painter to be singled out for this career-capping treatment is especially remarkable. Until recently, the notion of according a First Nations artist working in a traditional vein the most serious curatorial attention would have been controversial – if it was discussed at all. Morrisseau has been hanging around by the side door of the fine-art establishment for decades. Now, it seems, he is most definitely in.

Not that his huge output hasn’t been admired, or acquired, long before now. In fact, the painting of Morrisseau and his followers, along with Inuit sculpture and print-making and the West Coast school largely revived by Bill Reid, are the only homegrown art styles to be widely embraced by Canadians since the Group of Seven caught on in the 1920s. Native art is our national art. Yet contemporary Aboriginal art has often been left to museums of anthropology and archeology – not the halls of fine art. So an elegant silver bear bracelet by the Haida master Charles Edenshaw, or an ambiguous soapstone animal by Inuit minimalist Andy Miki, or, for that matter, a Morrisseau thunderbird, are treasures that have for the most part been considered artifacts of their particular cultures. They’re not to be viewed as art in the way the word is used when the object in question is, say, a classic Kreighoff landscape or an edgy contemporary installation piece.

But the era of art segregation may be ending. The upcoming Morrisseau blockbuster is only one sign. Another is a broader policy shift at the National Gallery. For the first time this year, the glass-and-granite institution, a popular stop for thousands of tourists to the capital, is showing Aboriginal work as part of its main Canadian exhibits. The experiment is called Art of this Land, and the juxtapositions it creates are striking. An elaborately painted horsehide by a Sioux artist of the mid-19th century stretches out before a Paul Kane painting of Plains Indians dancing, from the same period – a visual essay in historical perspectives. And then there’s the pure aesthetic jolt generated by putting a finely woven Tlingit robe of yellow, blue and natural wool across from a lively David Milne painting of a streetscape that echoes the colours and patterns of the West Coast textile.

Wandering through Art of this Land, the gallery-goer sees two streams of Canadian art converge. Morrisseau must be credited with having brought them closer together. His painting is an indispensable link between the old ways of Aboriginal art and the entry of contemporary Native artists into the world of collectors and critics. His experience is a bridge.

Morrisseau was born in the early 1930s (exact dates vary in different accounts) to a family from Sand Point, a reserve east of Thunder Bay. He was raised there by his devoutly Catholic grandmother, who taught him her faith, and his grandfather, a hunter and trapper who told him the old stories, which Morrisseau recounted vividly in the 1965 collection Legends of My People, the Great Ojibway. (My parents bought the book when I was a kid, and I devoured the strange tales – the ones about human-flesh-eating windigos making a particular impression – with the Morrisseau paintings in the rec room enhancing the experience.)

The clashing religious influences of Morrisseau’s grandparents play out in some of his most powerful work as a struggle to reconcile Christian and Ojibway beliefs. He has painted himself as Christ, but also shows men turning into thunderbirds. To see him as caught between two ways – as a stand – in for all conflicted Natives – is too pat. He’s an individual artist, not a living allegory. Still, it’s impossible to entirely resist viewing his foot-in-both-worlds alienation as emblematic of the reality of First Nations.

His painting career began when he was working in the gold mine in Cochenour, my hometown, in 1959. His earliest art shows him reaching back for images, deep into his grandfather’s stories. In that sense, he is a traditionalist. But he is also a revolutionary, reaching outward, trying to figure out how to transmit a message – and sell his work. “He was asking, ‘What is it that I need to make myself an artist?’ ” says Carleton University art historian Ruth Phillips, who has written extensively on Morrisseau.

He found his answers. Dr. Joseph Weinstein, a physician who lived in Cochenour in the late 1950s and early 1960s, bought Morrisseau’s paintings and showed him his collection of art books about not only European painting but also Navajo and West Coast Native art, which Morrisseau reportedly seized on for inspiration and ideas. As well, he met Selwyn Dewdney, an author and amateur anthropologist who was travelling through northwestern Ontario cataloguing Native rock painting. Dewdney wrote that he was startled to meet an artist “who actually looked like an artist,” and gave advice and encouragement to the young man with the sensitive face and evident talent. Morrisseau was soon taken on by flamboyant Toronto dealer Jack Pollock, who mounted the 1962 show that vaulted him into celebrity.

Since then, the story has often been a sad one. Old newspaper clippings on Morrisseau’s life can be sorted into two categories: glowing reviews of his periodic art shows, and sordid accounts of his frequent plunges into public drinking. In this, again, it’s hard not to make him an emblematic figure. “People want to see him as a tragic, romantic artist,” says Phillips. That’s part of it. More precisely, a tragic Indian artist. In his painting, we see the Native heritage most Canadians want to celebrate: mysterious, deep, rooted in our own land, and, in the words of Robert Bringhurst, the British Columbia poet and translator of Haida literature, “our Greek myths.” But in Morrisseau’s addiction, we see a portrait of the failure that blights both reserve and urban Aboriginals.

I went to visit Morrisseau last summer at his nursing home in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. A young couple, Gabe and Michele Vadas, who live not far away, are his main link to the world. Morrisseau met Gabe Vadas when they were both hanging out on the streets of Vancouver in 1987. “He was wearing a dirty, tattered blanket and he was very drunk,” Vadas recalls. They had coffee at a McDonald’s and struck up a friendship. Since then Vadas has acted as a combination of agent, personal assistant and surrogate son. It’s an odd relationship, but one that seems to work. Gallery owners who were suspicious at first have accepted Vadas as a stabilizing influence. Morrisseau has painted Gabe and Michele’s children with grandfatherly affection.

Vadas takes me to see Morrisseau at the nursing home. He’s in a dispute with his massage therapist when we arrive. Parkinson’s has robbed him of clear speech, so it’s hard to tell exactly what’s wrong. While matters are sorted out, I survey his room. Lots of pictures of his family, including grown children back in northern Ontario with whom he has little contact now.(His estranged wife, Harriet, died several years ago.) At his bedside, a coffee-table book of his paintings, a couple more of West Coast Native art, which he has enthusiastically collected, and the paperback Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom for Today, on the new-age religion Morrisseau has followed in recent years. While I take notes, he takes note of me. His familiar eyes look suspicious, if not downright hostile. “It’s a ghost from your past,” Vadas tells him with a laugh, explaining that I’m from Cochenour. We arrange to meet that afternoon, after Morrisseau has been taken for his daily drive.

And so a few hours later Morrisseau has been helped into a lawn chair in the carport of Vadas’s bungalow. There’s a breeze that smells of the nearby ocean, a salt tang unknown in the bush country north of Lake Superior. He’s got a cup of Starbucks coffee that he drinks through the hole in the lid, raising it slowly to his lips with hands far too shaky to hold a brush. He can manage only a few words at a time. I venture a question about the National Gallery show. “Don’t care about that shit,” Morrisseau says. When I ask why not, he softens. “Sure. Good idea.”

I try a few questions about the old days, but he seems to feel they are barely worth the huge effort it takes to answer. On that first Pollock show, one word: “Excitement.” On what drove him to paint in the first place: “Ask God.” About his struggles with alcohol, though, he sucks in breath and gasps out his longest reply: “I’d do it all over again. I’d have a better approach. I’d really get drunk.” Asked what his happiest memory is, he says without hesitation: “Grandparents.” Then he mutters something I take to be about his grandmother’s cooking, so I ask what food he remembers best, thinking he might say something about bannock or moose meat. But he smiles and gets out: “Oranges.” Of course. The Christmas treat of his generation.

Before an hour has passed the struggle of talking seems to be too much for him. Vadas takes us for a drive in his minivan. We go past handsome houses with good views of the islands off Nanaimo’s pretty harbour. Morrisseau gripes a little about the nursing home. He says he needs more money, although his income from art sales appears to be substantial. Vadas asks him what he would buy with it. “Canvas and paper,” he says. Such a sad answer. Finally, they drop me off at the dock where I can catch a float plane back to Vancouver. My hands seem small when Morrisseau grips them and manages, “Come back and visit us.” But that seems a long shot. By accident I got my look at him in his prime. Now I have sought him out in his old age. From here on, I’ll have to be satisfied with looking at his paintings. Thankfully, the opportunities for all of us to do that will be getting a whole lot better.

John Geddes, Jan 26, 2004
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