The Ojibway lived from the tip of Lake Superior west to the swell of the plains of Manitoba occupied by the Cree, south around the Great Lakes and through part of the area that is now the border states of the United States. For the Ojibway people all things contained life. The Thunderbird carried the messages of man to Manitou, The Great Loving Spirit. Mishipeshu, the Water Spirit, helped women and represented life below the water surface. The beaver was the builder who disappeared each winter and returned with spring - phoenix of life, representing the ancient understanding that one could die and be re-born. The bear, close in structure to man and powerful beyond man, became a "familiar" to the spirit world. All life sought balance in nature. Each required honour and its space in the physical and the spiritual world.
Norval Morrisseau was born on March 14, 1931, in Fort William, Ontario, or, he was born on March 14, 1932, at Sand Point near Beardmore. It was recorded that he was the eldest of five boys. His mother was Grace Theresa Potan Nenakwigagos, and his father, Abel Morrisseau. An additional record has him baptized as John Baptist Normand Henry Morrisseau with another birth date recorded as March, 14, 1933.
It was custom among the Ojibway to have the eldest son reared by the grandparents. Norval was brought up by his maternal grandfather. Moses “Potan” Nanakonagos was a brilliant storyteller and recognized by his peers as a Shaman. Norval had found his first and chief mentor in his maternal grandfather. Morrisseau attended a residential school in Thunder Bay for three years but left to return to the teaching of Nanakonagos. The relationship between the grandfather and grandson was one of guardianship, and also one of teacher and student. Norval was to be taught the ways of the Ojibway both as a way of living, and through knowledge of the scrolls, the history and ceremonies, as a spiritual quest. Norval, as he grew, surrounded by Nanakonagos’ teaching, naturally took the stance of the story-teller with his companions. He followed Moses’ ways and directions. Morrisseau was recognized by his peers as being ‘different’. When he began to make pictures from the ancient stories, he was discouraged by those who believed that the dissemination of any information from the content of the scrolls was strictly the task of the Shaman. Yet, Moses, himself, encouraged him.
In 1956, Norval was admitted to the Sanatorium in Thunder Bay with a case of tuberculosis. There he met David Kakegamic then of Deer Lake Indian Band and a resident of Sandy Lake, who became another mentor in his life. Over the years, Norval would seek guidance from David. Norval met David’s eldest daughter, Harriet, through visits to the sanatorium and the couple married in 1957.
Norval was drawing all of the time with any medium he had at hand and on any surface he could find. He drew the legends of the Anishnabe People. Norval was set aside in the community as a dreamer. Few understood what he was undertaking. Fewer understood the results of his work. He worked on bark, cardboard, kraft, and canvas. He went everywhere in the community attempting to sell his work. Norval Morrisseau had grown to become a soft spoken, brilliant young man. He was steeped in the history and mythology of the Anishnabe and struggling to break free from a European mold. He read everything and his mind was a trap for information. He had a real sense of who he was and exactly what he wanted to do.
Norval’s creativity was strong, frequently bursting off the page. He looked for larger scale opportunities to create massive images. Such an opportunity presented itself through the evolution of the Triple K Cooperative in Red Lake. The Coop was founded by Norval’s mentor David Kakegamic and his two sons, Henry and Joshim, in the clubhouse of the old curling rink in Red Lake. Norval would spread forty foot long rolls of kraft paper and work alongside the production of prints being produced by the Triple K Cooperative.
In 1960, Selwyn Dewdney visited the Red Lake District several times. He was an artist and a writer from Southern Ontario with an interest in finding and investigating the petroglyphs. He was travelling by canoe, and Norval signed on as a paddler. It was a natural collaboration as they searched the waterways for the petroglyphs of North Western Ontario. Out of these trips came a book entitled, “Legends of My People, The Great Ojibway”, told to Dewdney by Morrisseau as they attempted to reconstruct the legends of the Anishnabe from the rock paintings. In the book, Morrisseau falls back on the stories of Potan to unravel many of the illustrations on the rocks. Dewdney and the petroglyphs were another addition to the content taking shape in the artist’s mind.
Morrisseau was assimilating and generating the content and direction of his vision. Everything was grist for his artistic mill. He recalled the black lines that held the glass pictures in form in the church windows. He recalled the side-vision of the Mayan friezes in the books he had read. The bright and harsh colours of Northern Ontario were as familiar to him as Autumn. He extended the written language of the pictographic language into a visual pattern as well as conduit of meaning. Included in Morrisseau’s purpose was to portray his people as large, important, commanding and powerful. His purpose was nothing less than resurrecting the culture of the Anishnabe.
Morrisseau knew what all hunting and gathering people knew with their immediate contact with the preparation of game, that the exterior of the shape showed only the corporeal, but the inner, x-ray view of the structure revealed the spirit. From Siberia to Norway, to the Arctic, the spiritual content of the living object was shown by a technique that can only be called, x-ray vision. The exterior shape of the being was made of a series of ovoids of colour held together with the black lines of the stainglass windows- cloisone. In this way the image was both physical and spiritual, and went beyond language and the visual to symbol. The world was built of circles like the back of a turtle. All forms were multiple. Everything had life. We are all part of everything. Transformation permitted the physical to alter and change and melt into this new lexicon.
Morrisseau has written, “If you don’t see and understand the use of colours in my work you do not understand the painting.” He was constantly re-inventing his palette, challenging the eye of the viewer to see, in his combinations of colours, discordant to a European trained eye, the actual colours of nature.
By this time Morrisseau had gathered a group of kindred artists who worked with him and discovered new directions. Each took away what he or she needed and moved on to create their own personal vision: Carl Ray, Samuel Ash, Saul Williams, Roy Thomas; as well as, Jackson Beardy, Blake Debassige, Francis Kagige, Goyce and Joshim Kakegamic.
A self-taught artist, Norval would subsequently be the recipient of several honourary degrees.
Order of Canada
R.S.C, R.C.A., LL.D., C.M., D.Litt.
'Norval Morrisseau and the Emergence of the Image Makers' - Art Gallery of Ontario, 1984
Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ottawa, 1991
The Drawing Center, New York, 2000
Art Gallery of Ontario
National Gallery of Canada
Red Lake Regional Heritage Centre