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 Norval (Copper Thunderbird) Morrisseau  (1932 - 2007)



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Lived/Active: Ontario / Canada      Known for: mod-Indian figurative motif painting and drawing

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Ad Code: 3
Norval Morrisseau
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An Objibwa/Chippewa shaman, Norval Morrisseau was one of the first native Canadians to adopt modernist* styles that conveyed traditional aboriginal imagery.  "His style, which became known as Woodland* or Legend painting, evoked ancient etching from birch-bark scrolls and often used X-ray like motifs:  skeletal elements and internal organs visible within the forms of animals and people, and black spirit lines emanating from them."

He used saturated, startling colors described by a curator of the National Gallery of Canada as appearing "to vibrate under the viewer's gaze."  In 2006, the Gallery sponsored a retrospective of Morrisseau's work.  From there, the exhibition moved for a year to the George Gustav Heye Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

A 2001 exhibit in New York City at the Drawing Center featured Morrisseau drawings on paper towels, completed in Canada in the late 1960s when he had been in jail.  Holland Cotter, reviewer for The New York Times wrote:  "The results aren't ingratiating or beautiful.  Like visionary work in many cultures, they're aggressive, sometimes violent, as much about fearfulness as about transcendence."

Born in northern Ontario with the name of Jean-Baptiste Norman Henry Morrisseau, he was the eldest of seven children, and was raised by his maternal grandmother, a Catholic, and his maternal grandfather, a shaman.  Their opposing worldly views shaped the expression of his later art career.  He dropped out of school at a young age and lived much of his early life in poverty, wrestling with alcoholism.   He was a frustration to his art dealers because he put prices on his paintings according to their square inch size, and sometimes he traded his paintings for money to buy liquor.  In spite of debilitating problems, he had the reputation for resilience and energy. A medicine woman who saved his life gave him the name Copper Thunderbird because he reminded her of the powerful thunderbird symbol in Ojibwa folklore.

1962 was a landmark time for Morrisseau's career because of a Toronto exhibition that brought him fame.  His work toured internationally, and he traveled as well.  Russian painter Marc Chagall, meeting Morrisseau in Paris, "compared him to Picasso."  After this period of success, his life became more orderly.  In a 1991 interview, he said:  "Why am I alive?  To heal you guys who're more screwed up than I am.  How can I heal you?  With color.  These are the colors you dreamt about one night."

Morrisseau continued to paint until 2002 when the effects of Parkinson's disease left him unable to work.  In 2005, the Royal Society of Canada elected him to their ranks, and he also received honorary doctorates from McGill and McMaster universities.  The Assembly of First Nations, the umbrella organization of Aboriginal peoples, gave him the eagle feather, which was their highest honor.

Described in his obituary as "one of Canada's most celebrated painters," he died December 4, 2007 in Toronto.

Randy Kennedy, "Norval Morrisseau, Native Canadian Artist", The New York Times, 12/8/2007, B13-Obituaries.


* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from Mayberry Fine Art:
Born in 1931, at Sandy Point Reserve, Ontario, Norval Morrisseau became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1970.  Morrisseau was the celebrated founder of the Woodland School*, which revitalized Anishnabe iconography*, traditionally incised on rocks and Midewiwin birchbark scrolls.

A self-taught painter, printmaker, and illustrator, Morrisseau created an innovative vocabulary, which was initially criticized in the Native community for its disclosure of traditional spiritual knowledge.  His colourful, figurative images delineated with heavy black formlines and x-ray articulations, were characteristically signed with the syllabic spelling of Copper Thunderbird, the name Morrisseau's grandfather gave him.

Morrisseau completed many commissions during his career including the mural for the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo '67.  He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1978 and, in 1980, received honourary doctorates from both McGill and McMaster Universities.  In 1995 Morrisseau was honoured by the Assembly of First Nations.


* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

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