NORVAL MORRISSEAU: ISLANDS WITHIN – by Denese Izzard 2005

NORVAL MORRISSEAU: ISLANDS WITHIN

From Thunder Bay, Manitoulin Island, Toronto, Jasper Alberta, Santa Fe, Vancouver to Nanaimo, Canada’s national treasure, Norval Morrisseau born to power of place, found the power to be.

Starting his venturesome life at Sandy Lake Reserve (born in Fort William, now Thunder Bay), the man known as father of “The Woodland School of Art” knew as a child that he was on a mission not to lose his people’s culture. The artist’s way would preserve it, defying tribal taboos against revealing sacred tales to the outside world.

Mother Ojibway, father M├ętis, Morrisseau was raised in traditional manner by maternal grandparents. A medicine woman gave him the protective name, his now famous signature “Copper Thunderbird.”

Later like lightning before rumbling thunder, Norval would wield his paint brush on plywood panels, brown wrapping paper, and birchbark scrolls, making images come alive from stories passed down from shaman to shaman for thousands of years, told to him by his own grandfather, Shaman Moses “Potan” Nanakonagos, sixth generation Ojibway.

Throughout his career, Norval would dream dreams and have visions. His astral travels took him to the House of Invention, his source of inspiration for both content and colour. There he learned that ions and electrons were an underlying force that radiated from a colourful palette – that colour therapy can cure people. With ancients as guides telling him that heaven is “as above, so below,” images were brought through him and out of him. Yet he felt he was only an instrument.

Morrisseau’s art continued to reveal original designs and illuminate history with new information. “My art speaks and will continue to speak, transcending barriers of nationality, language and other forces that may be divisive, fortifying the greatness of the spirit that has always been the foundation of the Ojibwa people.”

In the 1950s, working in a gold mine in Cochenour, struggling to sell his work at the Fergie McDougal General Store, the artist was discovered by Dr. Joseph and Esther Weinstein. Amazed by Morrisseau’s talent, they bought everything he painted while he was still employed at the gold mine. Then in 1962 art dealer Jack Pollock paid a visit to Beardmore, Ontario. Overwhelmed by Norval’s canvases, an exhibit was planned for his Toronto gallery. A huge sensation, the show sold out.

A few years later Norval’s “Sacred Buffalo Worshippers” graced Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, drawing rave reviews. It was unlike any art work that had been done before.

SACRED BUFFALO WORSHIPPERS
 35″X52″, c. 1964

One of Canada’s most accomplished painters, Morrisseau has exhibited throughout North America, France, Germany and Norway. In 1989 he was the only Canadian painter invited to exhibit at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris to mark the bicentennial of the French Revolution. A member of the Order of Canada and the Royal Canadian Academy of Art, Norval Morrisseau holds the eagle feather, the highest honour awarded by the Assembly of First Nations.

Morriseau also caught the attention of the greats. Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall attended a show of his works at a solo exhibition at the Galerie St. Paul, in St. Paul-de-Vence, France (1969), where Chagall remarked, “Norval Morrisseau’s work bears the hallmark of a Picasso of the north.” A clear reference to the originality of the work and its break from hidebound precedents that had characterized native North American art.

All considered, the mid-1980s were a difficult time for Canada’s world famous artist who, after a failed business attempt, ended up on the streets of Vancouver.

In 1987 he met Canadian-born Hungarian Gabor Vadas, a remarkable young man, who helped him to get back on track. Said Morrisseau, “He’s the son I’ve been dreaming about for 20 years.” He also became the artist’s muse. Then Vadas met future French-Acadian wife, Michele. By the time sons Robin and Kyle arrived, Norval had a built-in family. In White Rock, living in a 2-storey home, Gabe built an artist’s studio with skylights, stained glass door, and deck facing the waterfront. These years resulted in some of his best work.

The internationally acclaimed painter has exhibited throughout North America, France, Germany and Norway. Internationally recognized at age 73, Norval Morrisseau is bound for immortality.

Today his life fully lived, he resides in a Nanaimo carehome, relatively comfortable after a stroke and Parkinson’s Disease confined him to a wheelchair. The Vadas’ spend most every day with the nation’s artistic treasure – going for drives in the country, walks on the sea wall, or at their home.

Artistic royalty, nearly iconic, Morrisseau sits stoically in a large leather recliner, TV on. Not wanting to lean into his space, the writer kneels, dares to touch the hand of the Grand Shaman of the Ojibway. His deep brown eyes darken, rest on the stranger. Breaking the spell, Michele places a cup of coffee on his sidetable and sits down, opening an impressive album of Norval Morriseau paintings, vital to the screenplay she’s working on.
 
Featured on a wall is another dynamic work portraying “The Family” – Norval, Gabe, Michele and Robin. Michele says, “I wouldn’t sell this painting for anything.”

THE FAMILY
c. 1990s
Years ago Robert and Signe McMichael, founders of the McMichael Collection at Kleinburg, Ontario, invited Morrisseau to stay in Tom Tomson’s cabin on their property. Michele recalls, “Before he died, McMichael said he believed that when Canada ‘disappears,’ Morrisseau will remain. I believe history will note that Norval will be better known than Picasso. He’s more original.”
Denese Izzard
Gabriola SOUNDER
March 2005