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Norval Morrisseau

Norval Morrisseau
photographic portrait
Born (1931-03-14)March 14, 1931
Beardmore, Ontario, Canada
Died December 4, 2007(2007-12-04) (aged 76)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Nationality Canadian
Education Self taught
Known for Painting
Movement Woodlands Style
Awards CM

Norval Morrisseau, CM (March 14, 1932 – December 4, 2007),[1] also known as Copper Thunderbird, was an Aboriginal Canadian artist. Known as the "Picasso of the North", Morrisseau created works depicting the legends of his people, the cultural and political tensions between native Canadian and European traditions, his existential struggles, and his deep spirituality and mysticism. His style is characterized by thick black outlines and bright colors. He founded the Woodlands School of Canadian art and was a prominent member of the “Indian Group of Seven”.


  • Biography 1
  • Style 2
  • Fakes and forgeries 3
  • Solo Exhibitions 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


An Anishinaabe, he was born March 14, 1931 on the Sand Point Ojibway reserve near Beardmore, Ontario. Some sources quote him as saying that he was born in Fort William, now part of Thunder Bay, Ontario, on the same date in 1931. His full name is Jean-Baptiste Norman Henry Morrisseau, but he signs his work using the Cree syllabics writing ᐅᓵᐚᐱᐦᑯᐱᓀᐦᓯ (Ozaawaabiko-binesi, unpointed: ᐅᓴᐘᐱᑯᐱᓀᓯ, "Copper/Brass [Thunder]Bird"), as his pen-name for his Anishnaabe name ᒥᐢᒁᐱᐦᐠ ᐊᓂᒥᐦᑮ (Miskwaabik Animikii, unpointed: ᒥᐢᑿᐱᐠ ᐊᓂᒥᑭ, "Copper Thunderbird").

In accordance with Anishnaabe tradition, he was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, Moses Potan Nanakonagos, a shaman, taught him the traditions and legends of his people. His grandmother, Grace Theresa Potan Nanakonagos, was a devout Catholic and from her he learned the tenets of Christianity. The contrast between these two religious traditions became an important factor in his intellectual and artistic development.

At the age of six, he was sent to a Catholic residential school, where students were educated in the European tradition, native culture was repressed, and the use of native language was forbidden. After two years he returned home and started attending a local community school.

At the age of 19, he became very sick. He was taken to a doctor but his health kept deteriorating. Fearing for his life, his mother called a medicine-woman who performed a renaming ceremony: She gave him the new name Copper Thunderbird. According to Anishnaabe tradition, giving a powerful name to a dying person can give them new energy and save their lives. Morrisseau recovered after the ceremony and from then on always signed his works with his new name.

Morrisseau contracted tuberculosis in 1956 and was sent to Fort William Sanitarium to recover. There he met his future wife Harriet Kakegamic with whom he had seven children, Victoria, Michael, Peter, David, Lisa, Eugene and Christian.

After being invited by Ontario Provincial Police Constable, Robert Sheppard, to meet the artist, the anthropologist Selwyn Dewdney, became an early advocate of Morrisseau's and was very interested in Morrisseau's deep knowledge of native culture and myth. Dewdney was the first to take his art to a wider public.

Jack Pollock, a Toronto art dealer, helped expose Morrisseau's art to a wider audience in the 1960s. The two initially met in 1962 while Pollock was teaching a painting workshop in Beardmore. As Pollock did not drive, Susan Ross whom Morrisseau had met in 1961 [2] and Sheila Burnford drove Pollock to visit Morrisseau at his home to view more of his works.[2][3] Immediately struck by the genius of Morrisseau's art, he immediately organized an exhibition of his work at his Toronto gallery.

One of Morrisseau's early commissions was for a large mural in the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, a revolutionary exhibit voicing the dissatisfaction of the First Nations People of Canada with their social and political situation.

In 1972, he was caught in a hotel fire in Vancouver and suffered serious burns on three-quarters of his body. In that occasion he had a vision of Jesus encouraging him to be a role model through his art. He converted to the apostolic faith and started introducing Christian themes in his art. A year later he was arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour and was incarcerated for his own protection. He was assigned an extra cell as studio and was allowed to attend a nearby church.

Norval is founder of a Canadian-originated school of art called Woodland or sometimes Legend or Medicine painting. His work is influential on a group of younger Ojibwe and Cree artists, such as Blake Debassige, Tom Chee Chee, Leland Bell.

He spent his youth in remote isolation in northern Ontario, near Thunder Bay, where his artistic style developed without the usual influences of other artist's imagery. As the sole originator of his "Woodland" style he has become an inspiration to three generations of artists. [4] In 1978, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.[5] He was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.[6]

As Morrisseau's health began to decline as a result of Parkinson's disease and a stroke in 1994, he was cared for by his adopted family Gabe and Michelle Vadas. In 2005 and 2006, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa organized a retrospective of his work. This was the first time that the Gallery dedicated a solo exposition to a native artist.

In the final months of his life, the artist used a wheelchair and lived in a residence in Nanaimo, British Columbia. He was unable to paint due to his poor health. He died of cardiac arrest—complications arising from Parkinson's disease on December 4, 2007 in Toronto General Hospital. He was buried after a private ceremony in Northern Ontario next to the grave of his former wife, Harriet, on Anishinaabe land.

He would draw on the sandy beaches of Lake Nippagon with a stick and let the waves take the images away. He was told by some that it was taboo to relate these stories[4]

The National Arts Centre, urban ink co-production, Copper Thunderbird, premiered on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) on Monday, Feb 4th 2008.[7] Norval Morrisseau was honoured with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award during the NAAF Awards held at the Sony Centre in Toronto on March 22, 2008.


Morrisseau was a self-taught artist. He developed his own techniques and artistic vocabulary which captured ancient legends and images that came to him in visions or dreams. He was originally criticized by the native community because his images disclosed traditional spiritual knowledge. Initially he painted on any material that he could find, especially birchbark, and also moose hide. Dewdney encouraged him to use earth-tone colors and traditional material, which he thought were appropriate to Morrisseau's native style.

The subjects of his art in the early period were myths and traditions of the Anishnaabe people. He is acknowledged to have initiated the Woodland School of native art, where images similar to the petroglyphs of the Great Lakes region were now captured in paintings and prints.

His later style changed: he used more standard material and the colors became progressively brighter, eventually obtaining a neon-like brilliance. The themes also moved from traditional myth to depicting his own personal struggles. He also produced art depicting Christian subjects: during his incarceration, he attended a local church where he was struck by the beauty of the images on stained-glass windows. Some of his paintings, like Indian Jesus Christ, imitate that style and represent characters from the Bible with native features.

After he joined the new age religion Eckankar in 1976, he started representing on canvas its mystical beliefs.

The cover art for the Bruce Cockburn album Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws is a painting by Norval Morrisseau.[8]

Fakes and forgeries

On the left, 2004 email from Norval Morrisseau requesting the removal of nine items identified as fakes from sale, directed at an unknown dealer. On the right, a 2007 press release from Norval Morrisseau disavowing any link with the "Morrisseau Family Foundation", and identifying the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society as the sole authority to create a catalogue raisonné of his work.

The prevalence of fakes and forgeries was of deep concern to Morrisseau, particularly during his later years, and he actively sought to remove these from the marketplace.[9]

In 2005 Morrisseau established the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society (NMHS). The Society is currently compiling a database of Norval Morrisseau paintings to discredit many prevalent Morrisseau forgeries. This committee, not affiliated with any commercial gallery or art dealer, comprises highly respected members of the academic, legal and Aboriginal communities working on a volunteer basis. It is charged with creating a complete catalogue raisonné of Norval Morrisseau artwork. The NMHS is currently researching Morrisseau art, provenance and materials and techniques in order to complete the task assigned to them by the artist. The NMHS continue their work and in 2008, were in Red Lake, Ontario to research additional information and art by the artist.[10]

Letter from the solicitor of the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society confirming the existence and purpose of the Society established by Norval Morrisseau.

The Art Dealers Association of Canada (ADAC) issued the following directive in the Winter 2007 newsletter to their membership: "The Art Dealers Association of Canada is enacting a rule and regulation that no certificates of authenticity will be issued by any members of ADAC with respect to any works or purported works by Norval Morrisseau and that the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society is the sole authority for the authentication of works by Norval Morrisseau." ADAC also revoked the membership of a dealer who failed to comply with this directive.

Morrisseau also engaged in more direct intervention, identifying fake and forged works available for sale, particularly those purported to be painted by him in the so-called "70s style". He wrote to galleries and made sworn declarations identifying items being sold as "Artworld of Sherway, Gallery Sunami, Maslak McLeod Gallery, Bearclaw Gallery, Gary Bruce Thacky (AKA Gary Lamont of Thunder Bay, Ontario) and Randy Potter Estate Auctions.

The debate concerning the authenticity of the "70s paintings" commonly found in the marketplace, continues with ongoing litigation.[12]

Solo Exhibitions

1961 Hughes Gallery, London, Ontario
1962 Pollock Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1963 Pollock Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1964 Pollock Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1965 Hart House Gallery at University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario
1965 Galerie Godard Lefort, Montreal, Quebec
1966 Musée du Québec (now renamed Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec), Quebec City, Quebec
1966 Galerie Cartier (Co-sponsored by Pollock Gallery), Montreal, Quebec
1968 Art Gallery of Newport (Sponsored by Galerie Cartier), Newport, Rhode Island, USA
1969 Galerie St-Paul, St-Paul de Vence, France
1972 Pollock Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1974 Canadian Guild of Crafts, Toronto, Ontario
1974 The Bau-Xi Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia
1974 Pollock Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1975 Pollock Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1975 Shayne Gallery, Montreal, Quebec
1976 Pollock Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1976 Gallery 115, Winnipeg, Manitoba
1977 Pollock Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1977 Graphic Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia
1978 Wells Gallery, Ottawa, Ontario
1978 First Canadian Place (sponsored by the Pollock Gallery), Toronto, Ontario
1979 Pollock Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1979 The Gallery Stratford, Stratford, Ontario
1979 Shayne Gallery, Montreal, Quebec
1979 The McMichael Canadian Collection(Artist in residence),Kleinburg, Ontario
1979 Cardigan/Milne Gallery, Winnipeg, Manitoba
1980 Canadian Galleries, Edmonton, Alberta
1980 Lynnwood Arts Centre, Simcoe, Ontario
1980 Bayard Gallery, New York, New York, USA
1981 Pollock Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1981 Anthony's Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1981 Anthony's Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia
1981 Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre, Thunder Bay, Ontario
1981 Nexus Art Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1982 Moore Gallery, Hamilton, Ontario
1982 Masters Gallery, Calgary, Alberta
1982 Robertson Gallery, Ottawa, Ontario
1982 The New Man Gallery, London, Ontario
1982 Nexus Art Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1982 Legacy Art Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1982 Scarborough Public Gallery, Scarborough, Ontario
1984 Ontario Place, Toronto, Ontario
1984 Ontario North Now, Kenora, Ontario
1985 Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan
1986 First Canadian Place (joint exhibition with Brian Marion), Toronto, Ontario
1986 Manulife Centre, Edmonton, Alberta
1987 Gulf Canada Gallery, Edmonton, Alberta
1988 Sinclair Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia
1989 The Art Emporium, Vancouver, British Columbia
1990 Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto, Ontario
1991 Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto, Ontario
1991 Wallack Gallery, Ottawa, Ontario
1992 Jenkins Showler Galleries, White Rock, British Columbia
1994 Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto, Ontario
1997 Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto, Ontario
1999 Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto, Ontario
1999 The Drawing Centre, New York, New York, USA
2001 Art Gallery of South Western Manitoba, Brandon, Manitoba
2001 Canada House Gallery, Banff, Alberta
2001 Drawing Center, New York, New York
2002 Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Thunder Bay, Ontario
2006 Steffich Fine Art, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia
2006 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario
2006 Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Thunder Bay, Ontario
2006 McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario
2007 Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico
2007 The George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, New York, New York

2008 Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto, Ontario
2010 Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto, Ontario
2012 Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto, Ontario
2014 Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto, Ontario

See also


  1. ^—Iconic Canadian painter Norval Morrisseau dies at 75
  2. ^ a b Susan Ross "Painting is a Way of Life"- A Retrospective Exhibition, Thunder Bay Art Gallery June 3-July 17, 1994 page 15
  3. ^ Dear M - Letters From a Gentleman of Excess by Jack Pollock (1989)
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ Governor General of Canada - Order of Canada
  6. ^
  7. ^ NAC English Theatre/urban ink productions (Galiano Island) co-production
  8. ^ Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws Album cover by Norval Morrisseau
  9. ^ Morrisseau Experts Hunt for up to 10,000 works (Ottawa Citizen, January 2, 2007. Retrieved December 25, 2012.)
  10. ^ Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society at the Red Lake Woodland Arts Festival (July 4-6, 2008)
  11. ^ Norval Morrisseau's Sworn Declarations
  12. ^ Norval Morrisseau Related Litigation

Further reading

  • Jack Pollock, Lister Sinclair, "The Art of Norval Morrisseau", Methuen & Co., USA, 1979, ISBN 0458938203.
  • Greg Hill, Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist, Douglas & McIntyre, Canada, 2006, ISBN 1-55365-176-6.
  • Norval Morrisseau, Donald C. Robinson, Return to the House of Invention, Key Porter Books Ltd, Canada, 2005, ISBN 1-55263-726-3.
  • Basil H. Johnston, The Art of Norval Morrisseau, The Writings of Basil H. Johnston, The Glenbow Museum, Calgary, 1999.
  • Norval Morrisseau, Donald C. Robinson, Travels to the House of Invention, Key Porter Books Ltd, Canada, 1997, ISBN 1-55013-880-4.
  • Norval Morrisseau, Legends of my People, The Great Ojibway, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto, 1977, ISBN 0070777144
  • Marie Clements, "Copper Thunderbird", Talonbooks, Canada, 2007, ISBN 0889225680.

External links

  • Boston Globe Obituary: Norval Morrisseau, was native artist of Canada
  • Norval Morrisseau and the Nobel Peace Prize
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