New book honours Canadian painter Morriseau

Norval Morrisseau, known as the “Picasso of the North,” is often considered one of Canada’s greatest painters.

His artwork has graced the walls of the National Gallery, was sought after by collectors and even imitated by forgers. 

However, Morrisseau’s origins are far more humble than the grand halls of art galleries and national museums.

Born in 1931 on the Sand Point Ojibway reserve near Thunder Bay, Ont., Morrisseau grew up in impoverished circumstances. Living in a tin shack beside a dump, he learned to paint on birch bark with whatever materials he could obtain. Yet by the time he died in 2007, Morrisseau was an internationally renowned artist. 

Armand Ruffo, an indigenous poet and writer, captures this incredible journey in his new book titled Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird.

The book was published in September and was officially launched at an event hosted by Octopus Books on Oct. 17. The launch featured a reading by the author.

Ruffo says it was important to write this book now, because he wanted to recognize the major contribution Morrisseau made by bringing indigenous perspectives into mainstream Canadian culture. 

Ruffo says readers should not expect a straightforward biography. Instead, the book takes a more creative route by breaking from realism in sections, and using mythic characters of Ojibway legends to tell Morrisseau’s life story. 

“I wanted to write a story about him,” explains Ruffo. “That is the traditional method of passing on knowledge in Ojibway culture,” he adds, noting his own mother was also a member of the Ojibway nation.

“In the Ojibway or Anishinabe tradition, myth and realism are all one. There is no separation between the spiritual and the physical,” says Ruffo.

Morrisseau’s work also showcased Ojibway culture and spirituality, says Allan Ryan, a professor of indigenous studies and art history at Carleton University. 

“He had such a unique individual vision to preserve the myths and legends of his people,” says Ryan. 

Morrisseau was inspired by traditional Ojibway art forms, which he adapted for painting on canvasses with acrylics, says Ryan. This resulted in Morrisseau’s iconic “woodland” style. 

“He was a colourist. The colours were so brilliant and vibrant. His work simply transcends and it’s important to Canada. There are people talking about him in the same breath as Picasso,” says Ryan.

As a matter of fact, Morrisseau once visited the Picasso Museum in Spain. For the painter who started working with technicolours in the 1990s, Picasso’s colours “weren’t bright enough” for the Ojibway artist, says Ruffo.

Morrisseau’s distinct style helped build a stronger indigenous presence in Canadian society, says Ryan.

“It’s about injecting indigenous voices,” says Ryan. “What’s happening in politics – the reaffirmation, reclamation and celebration of aboriginal culture – is evident in all forms of expression.” 

Indigenous art makes a vital contribution to contemporary Canadian art, according to Greg Hill, the curator of aboriginal art at the National Gallery of Canada.

“During both times of peace and unrest, indigenous art can be a celebration of culture and identity as well as a tool for education and renewal. It is always political,” writes Hill in an article for Art Monthly Australia.

Morrisseau’s work was both a subject of celebration and national acclaim, earning him the Order of Canada in 1978. While the artist was often publicly praised, he was also thrust into the spotlight through his very public struggle with poverty and substance abuse. 

“If Red Lake were booze, he would lap up every ounce of it,” says Ruffo, stating he wanted to be completely truthful about Morrisseau’s life in his biography. 

Despite living a life of immense struggle, Morrisseau was never bitter, Ruffo says. 

After meeting with the artist personally, Ruffo says Morrisseau “had buckets of charisma and power.”

By surviving sexual abuse in a residential school, living in poverty and struggling with alcoholism, Morrisseau embodied many of the hardships faced by other indigenous peoples in Canada, explains Ruffo. 

But by rising above this strife, Morrisseau paved the way for other aboriginal people to stand up and resist adversity, he adds.

“It’s artists that make these great strides into being recognized . . . As the elders say ‘move the heart and the mind will follow.’ ”