Norval Morrisseau - Shaman Artist
“My paintings are icons, that is to say, they are images which help focus on spiritual powers, generated by traditional belief and wisdom.”
TORONTO -- Ojibwa painter Norval Morrisseau, one of Canada's most celebrated artists, has died at the age of 75.
Called "the Picasso of the North" by Marc Chagall, Morrisseau rose to prominence in the 1960s, the first aboriginal artist to achieve success in the mainstream art world. Last year he became the first aboriginal artist to have a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.
Morrisseau, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, was an ailing old man in a wheelchair when he attended the 2006 gallery opening in Ottawa. But he was a young man in Beardmore, a northern Ontario mining town, when he was "discovered" by Jack Pollock, a Toronto art dealer, in 1962.
Pollock, hired by the province to teach art in northern communities, was working out of a one-room school when Morrisseau walked in.
"He was disgusting -- drunk and he had pissed his pants -- and he had a roll of birch bark and paper under his arm," Pollock wrote in his 1989 memoir. "He had heard this white teacher was up from Toronto and he wanted to show me his paintings."
Pollock took one look and got goosebumps. "I knew he was a genius." Pollock gave Morrisseau his first show.
Born at Sand Point Reserve, near Beardmore, Ont., in 1932 -- his age was always a mystery because of conflicting birth records -- Morrisseau, also called Copper Thunderbird, was a self-taught artist who combined elements from his Ojibwa heritage and European influences to originate the pictographic style, which became known as the Woodland or Anishnaabe School of Art.
"I transmit astral plane harmonies through my brushes into the physical plane," reads a quotation from Morrisseau on the unofficial Web site www.norvalmorrisseau.com. "These otherworld colours are reflected in the alphabet of nature, a grammar in which the symbols are plants, animals, birds, fishes, earth and sky. I am merely a channel for the spirit to utilize, and it is needed by a spirit-starved society."
A shaman and a storyteller, Morrisseau inspired generations of native artists. His style was widely imitated and as prices for his work rose, so did the number of forgeries.
"Morrisseau reveals something of the soul of humanity through colour and his unique 'X-ray' style of imaging: Sinewy black 'spirit' lines emanate, surround, and link animal and human figures, and skeletal elements and internal organs are visible within their brightly coloured segments," said the National Gallery in its announcement of the exhibit last year titled Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist.
Ruth Phillips, an art historian who is compiling a catalogue of all of Morrisseau's known works, called the artist's death a huge shock.
"Norval Morrisseau bridged the historical tradition of his ancestors -- which ranged from ritual arts used in Shamanism ... to beautifully decorated clothing, painting on rocks -- to a new form of modern art expressed in drawings and prints. He also took oral traditions and transformed them into modern visual art."
Phillips remembers Morrisseau as a spiritual, warm and engaging man.
"He blazed a path that many young artists followed. He was a great role model for younger artists. His courage, in confronting the oppression, the attempt by government policy which began in the 19th century to silence and hasten the end of traditional indigenous knowledge, it took great courage to confront that. He was an extraordinary man."
Morrisseau's career and life were marked by artistic and commercial success, an Order of Canada, magical mystery tours reserved for the most powerful of shamans, sexual abuse by priests, alcohol and drug abuse, a libertine sex life ("I did everything under the sun"), jail time, brief patronage from the mob, periods of extreme poverty, estrangement from his seven children and, late in life, a happy, sober ending.
Morrisseau has been awarded honourary doctorates from McGill and McMaster universities and has received the eagle feather, which is the highest honour awarded by the Assembly of First Nations.
"Norval Morrisseau was the key figure at the centre of an Indigenous art movement in Canada in the 1960s that broke through stereotypes, racism and discrimination in that era,"said Assembly of First Nations national Chief Phil Fontaine in a statement on Tuesday. "He struggled to have his art shown in fine art galleries. And he succeeded."
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. In 2005 he was elected to the ranks of The Royal Society of Canada, a group of 1,800 distinguished Canadians selected by their peers for their outstanding contributions to the arts, natural and social sciences and the humanities.
Most recently, Morrisseau, who stopped painting in 2002, received the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.
A Morrisseau painting graced the cover of Bruce Cockburn's album Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws, which produced his breakthrough hit Wondering Where the Lions Are.
Earlier this year a highly public battle over Morrisseau's legacy erupted. Gabe Vadas, Morrisseau's companion and caregiver since the two met in the 1980s on the streets of Vancouver and unofficially adopted each other, became the spokesman for the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society, which has been fighting with the Morrisseau Family Foundation, headed by Morrisseau's son Christian, for the right to authenticate the artist's works.
Repeated heart problems weakened him noticeably over the past year, Vadas told the Toronto Star.
"He'd have a great day then he'd have a bad day," said Vadas. "But he was getting worse."
Morrisseau died at Toronto General Hospital on Tuesday morning. There will be no funeral, although there will be visitation at Jarrett Funeral Home on Thursday and Friday.