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Norval Morrisseau (1932-2007)

December 18th, 2007

Norval Morrisseau, called Miskwaabik Animiiki or Copper Thunderbird, passed into the spirit world on December 4, 2007, after having lived on this earth for 75 years. Born in northern Ontario, Morrisseau came to prominence in the early 1960s after a sold-out exhibition at Jack Pollock’s gallery in Toronto. The artist and the dealer first met while they were both living in the pulp-and-paper town of Beardmore in northwestern Ontario, where Pollock was teaching art classes. He was struck by Morrisseau’s original imagery of colourful mythological creatures, delineated by bold black lines and painted on local kraft paper. The painter’s focus on traditional iconography – recovered from ancient memory erased by government policies of acculturation – was first met with rebuke by his elders. Over the course of his life and work, in fact, Morrisseau unleashed in a subsequent generation of artists a torrent of possibility, giving them a visual language in which to express their identity, culture and history.

In a recent tribute, Toronto artist Robert Houle, who was close friend of Morrisseau, wrote:

“Norval, like all innovators, had made a trajectory to contemporary cultural theory, an idea I was not to understand until quite recently. It situated Norval at the centre of a cultural transformation, contemporary Ojibwa art. This legendary artist had created a visual language whose lineage included the ancient shaman artists of the Midiwewin scrolls, the Agawa Bay rock paintings and the Peterborough petroglyphs. As a master narrator, he had a voice that thundered like the sentinel of a people still listening to the stories told since creation.”

Morrisseau, Norval
Moose Dream Legend 1962
Oil on wove paper 54.6 x 75.3 cm
Art Gallery of Ontario Gift of Procter and Gamble Canada Ltd., 1964
© 2007 Art Gallery of Ontario