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March 3, 2006

Ojibway artist at the National Gallery.

Norval Morrisseau, Ojibway artist and leader of the Woodland school of native art has (until April 30th) the first solo exhibition by an Anishnaabe artist in the 126-year history of Canada’s National Gallery in Ottawa.  The exhibition of 60 paintings, drawings, murals and sculpture according to the press is “a complete triumph” for this “creative genius”, and “great visionary shaman”.  Woodland (including Morrisseau), Inuit and West Coast native artists have been in group shows over the years at the Gallery, but this is the first (long overdue) solo exhibition of a native artist. 

 Cover of Norval Morrisseau exhibition catalogue.

At the exhibition’s opening earlier this month Morrisseau, in spite of Parkinson’s disease that has almost silenced his voice and his painting, savoured the event.  Morrisseau who was born near Port Arthur some 74 years ago started drawing 50 years ago as a teenager.  I remember seeing his first show at the Pollock Gallery in 1962 where all his paintings sold.  He was written up in Time magazine.  His future looked bright but there were many ups and downs leading to this current major exhibition 44 years later. 

Norval, as the oldest son in his family, was raised by his grandparents.  His grandfather was intensely aware of his own native spirituality and guided Norval, including a vision quest.  He was sent to a residential school where he was emotionally and sexually abused before coming back to his community for a couple of years of education.  Dropping out after having learned to speak and write English, and having no art training he began to draw with crayons and ballpoint pens.  He was an intelligent and creative loner who spent as much time as possible with adults listening and asking questions. 

There were many tough times in his life but he was lucky to find several supporters who kept him on track to become one of Canada’s most famous artists.  In 1950 and 1956 he had serious health problems and spent considerable time in hospital.  In 1972 he was involved in a fire that burned a large part of his body.  He also had a serious drinking problem that put him on the streets of Vancouver in the late 1980s selling some of his poorly drawn sketches.  His marriage broke up and he moved many times but seldom abandoned his talent, ambition and vision. 

His talent was discovered by the wife of a doctor in the late 1950s in a mining community in northern Ontario where she saw his work for sale in a store.  Her husband was an artist and they bought some of his paintings and brought him into their home to look at their extensive collection of art books.  Later Selwyn Dewdney an artist and anthropologist saw his work and learned a lot from him about native life and taught him a lot.  They met and corresponded and Dewdney provided him with painting materials, instruction and advice on moving from being a craftsperson to being a professional artist.  Jack Pollock, a Toronto Gallery owner met him while on a northern trip and was overwhelmed by his work.  He held Norval’s first exhibition in 1962 in Toronto and all of his paintings sold. 

His unique style developed and he became the leader of the new Ontario Woodland or Anishnaabe school of art.  He included many animals and much native mythology in his work.  He showed the inside of his figures in an X-ray style that was quite powerful.  His technique of putting black lines around sections of his figures, like lead around stained glass was unique.  His heightened use of colour was another effective and recognizable characteristic as was his brilliant use of space. 

In 1967 he was asked to do a mural for Expo ’67 and the respect heightened his recognition.  He was a highly productive artist who also did silk screen copies of his work in the hundreds.  (There are five of his signed and numbered prints in the North Bay Public Library outside the Children’s section).  Over the years he had many successful exhibitions.  He was criticized by native people for sharing their vision and mythology outside the native community and at various times by non-natives for being too productive and illustrative and getting away from his roots. 

Over the years he received The Order of Canada and honorary doctorates from McMaster and McGill and other accolades.  Books and articles were written about him and the native community honoured him.  During his crisis on the streets of Vancouver he met Gabe Vadas who took him into his family and supported his artistic endeavours until Parkinson’s put him into a care facility, into a wheel chair and curtailed his painting.  A crisis of fake Morrisseau’s is currently being resolved as his life shortens and the potential value of his paintings rises. 

His story is much more detailed than this space allows.  The stunning catalogue for the exhibition with three excellent essays is available at the National Gallery (www.national.gallery.ca) at 613-990-0962 ($55.00) and the show runs until April 30 when it will move to the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg on September 30.  This is a great opportunity to see one of Canada’s great painters – a man of intelligence, drive, creativity and insight of the highest order. 

PS: For more information see Norval Morrisseau's principal gallery's webpage: http://www.kinsmanrobinson.com/dynamic/artist.asp?ArtistID=11

Coincidentally the Royal Ontario Museum has recently opened its new Gallery of Canada: First Peoples, which displays an incredible array of native historical artifacts.

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