“Bold, beautiful, graphic, eye-catching, detailed, interesting and colorful” are just a few of the words a group of touring high school students used to describe the new exhibit of paintings by Norval Morrisseau at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Morrisseau was born on an Anishinaabe reserve in northern Ontario in 1931 and raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a shaman who taught him the traditions and stories of his people. Morrisseau had six years of formal education, two in a residential school.
Morrisseau adopted the name Copper Thunderbird as his artistic career began and always signed his paintings with that name. Some accounts say he was given the powerful name by a medicine woman or shaman as he was trying to recover from a serious illness. Other sources say Morrisseau had a dream in which Manitou came to him and performed a naming ceremony, calling him Thunderbird.
Morrisseau didn’t have any artistic training but developed his art skills on his own. At age 25 Morrisseau was diagnosed with tuberculosis and went to the Fort William Sanatorium where he met his future wife Harriet. They had seven children but later separated.
Toronto art dealer Jack Pollock saw Morrisseau’s work and was instrumental in exposing it to a wider audience. Morrisseau is sometimes called the Picasso of the North because like Picasso, Norval Morrisseau could draw spontaneously, never lifting his pencil from the paper until the image was complete.
Norval became the originator of the Woodlands School of Art using images similar to prehistoric artwork found on rocks or on birch bark scrolls. He is said to have created some 10,000 artworks in his lifetime.
Caught in a hotel fire at age 41 Morrisseau suffered burns to 75% of his body. He struggled with alcoholism and with Parkinson’s disease and had a stroke at age 65. Yet despite all these setbacks he continued to produce his unique and popular work.
Morrisseau was awarded the Order of Canada in 1978. In 2006 the National Gallery did a large show of his lifetime of work. It was the first time an indigenous artist had a solo show there. He died in Nanaimo BC in 2007 at age 76.
His bold beautiful paintings will be on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery till September. You don’t want to miss seeing them!