Two fighting moose (1964) Norval Morrisseau

Two fighting moose
Norval Morrisseau
Gouache on cardboard, 31” x 76”, 1964
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Artist with Parkinson’s rails against fakers
who’d steal his life’s work

Canada’s greatest artist has rolled into town. He is house-hunting. He is here to kick some ass. Don’t let the wheelchair fool you.

“A good swift kick” Norval Morrisseau says as best he can through the grip of Parkinson’s. Morrisseau, 76, aka Copper Thunderbird, aka Shaman Artist, wants what’s coming to him. He wants his money. He wants his reputation back. He wants to send the frauds and fakers packing. The “bad guys.” Now should be his zenith, up there with the Group of Seven. Abroad, he is as famed as Tom Thomson. The Woodlands style of native art, dramatic x-ray animals, shamans and spirits, is his baby. He invented the genre.

A tour of his work landed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York last week. A play about his life debuted at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in May. The Order of Canada is among his titles, and he has a startling number of honorary degrees for a guy with Grade 4. So, what’s he got to complain about, you ask? Plenty. I stumble upon him in Yorkville, outside Marcello Tarantino men’s shop.

Gabe Vadas, 41, is pushing his wheelchair. Gabe is the shaman’s apprentice. They met in downtown Vancouver in 1987. Both were rock-bottom. Evil spirits — booze, dope, shady patrons — had pursued Morrisseau after his early success in Toronto in the 1960s. For years, a drawing was worth the price of a bottle. Gabe wasn’t doing much better. One day, slouched in an alcove near Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House off Robson St., he looked up and saw a giant wrapped in an old blanket. “At first I thought he was a priest,” Vadas tells me. “Then I realized, no, this was a man who was really drunk.” They had coffee at McDonald’s, then dragged each other out of the gutter.

Until this move to Toronto, Morrisseau, who has seven kids, has lived mostly with Vadas and his wife in Nanaimo, B.C. “Gabe saved Norval’s life,” says Aaron Milrad, a high-powered Bay Street lawyer helping to fight the bad guys.  “In the process, he saved his own life.” And Morrisseau’s career, until Parkinson’s began its cruel work in 1995. Now, Gabe is surrogate son, caregiver, friend and manager.

The latter is no cakewalk. In art, as in life, you pay the piper. In his fuzzy, party years, the great artist did not always hang with warm and fuzzy people.

Some saw easy gold in the man from Sandy Point Ojibwa reserve near Thunder Bay. Who painted what? Who signed what? Who the hell knows?

Which brings us to the fakes. Vadas says they are still being churned out.

Says Milrad: “Not only do they hurt Norval’s market, they hurt his ultimate reputation …“That we cannot allow. He’s the most original artist Canada has ever produced.”

The “bad guys” are a moving target. Who are they? The Morrisseau camp, if they know for sure, won’t say. But letters have gone to dealers and auctioneers urging caution.

The mess has kept prices remarkably low, considering. Major works that Gabe thinks should fetch $100,000 go for a quarter of that. Smaller paintings are much cheaper.

A committee is trying to catalogue true Morrisseau works. Vadas is setting up an appraisal service of his own, part of the reclamation project now unfurling in Toronto.

The lawyers also will chase royalties for prints, books and other merchandise. Milrad had to curb a company making curtains in Morrisseau patterns.

This week, shaman and apprentice are looking for a home here, a base for the campaign, which includes marketing. There is, for instance, a line of clothing. What? Norval Morrisseau, the brand? “You may not like the idea,” says Vadas, “but if we don’t do it, someone else will. Someone will capitalize.” So, Marcello Tarantino has produced silk ties, scarves, robes, baseball caps and Ts emblazoned with Morrisseau art. In the photo, Morrisseau wears a shirt from the line.

Laboriously, he tells me a tale of a turtle and a bullfrog who meet at a bridge. Neither yields. Both jump in the river. Perhaps he means he will not yield to the “bad guys.”

“We have to do something about this,” says Vadas. “We have to kick some booty, if not for Canada, then for the man.” 

Before the shoot, Morrisseau doodles, the best he can. When Norval Morrisseau doodles, you perk up. It is his signature in native symbols. As drawn by an artist with Parkinson’s.

It is shaky, uneven, a little sad. But it is real.

Mike Strobel
Toronto Sun
October 24, 2007