"When the history of the twentieth century art in North America is written, no chapter will be more dramatic or significant than that of the Anishnabe painters, the aboriginal people of the Great Canadian Shield. In the 1950's when it appeared that their culture was on the verge of being extinguished by the onslaught of the "white" civilization, there was a move by several individuals to preserve the ancient oral traditions by recording them in writing and in art. In so doing, the artist's developed a unique style, indigenous, distinctive, graphic, with a rare potential for narrative and an innate primitive beauty. By the very act of depicting legends, the artists defied centuries of taboos, and many interesting sociological events followed: a shift in the roles of shaman /artist/ hunter occurred in the Anishnabe culture; the art became a seminal force in a revitalization movement; and the entire Ojibway Nation, a people heretofore overlooked by the mainstream of history, was thrust suddenly into the spotlight glare of an art-loving public."
Mary E. (Beth) Southcott
"Enclosed are some crayon drawings of a young Indian I have met from around Beardmore way. His crayon drawings are good and his water colours are even better. I have some of his water colors (sic) inside birch baskets and they are really beautiful. His name is Norval Morrisseau, and he has had grade school and has done plenty of reading since leaving school, and he himself studies and collects Indian lore as well as being by way of an artist. He has plenty of access to his material being an Indian himself. He is looking for work, married, and no children, and it seems a shame he doesn't get a chance to sell his work or find many interested people. It is not the sort of thing to sell to tourists as it would go unnoticed except for the novelty. Too bad the Museum couldn't use a series of Indian paintings, or could they? What do you think this boy's chances are?? He can draw and paint, grew up with the people and knows the stories by heart. It seems a shame that his talents can't be made useful and available."
"His formal education, typically enough for Indian children of that time and place, was rudimentary and frequently interrupted. Two winters at the Indian residential school in Fort William were the only consistent schooling he was exposed to. At fifteen he left school with Grade Four standing to contribute his labour to the bare subsistence standards of his family. By this time he had moved to Beardmore, to a shack near the town dump, where in his late teens he could soften the edge of his growing hunger for knowledge puzzling his way through the pages of discarded books. How was it possible for this youth to reach back to the old feelings, to conceive the images that would bear the unmistakable stamp of his people? How could this firm pride originate in a community relegated to the status of third class citizens, constantly reminded of this status and defeated by it? What was there about this lad that earned for him in a medicine woman's dream the combined names of a powerful spirit and the metal traditionally sacred to the Lake Superior Ojibway - Copper Thunderbird?"
"I saw a sense of purpose, a direction, and an inner strength. Looking at it from a painting point of view, I found an incredible sense of design, a power of imagery, and a uniqueness. You know, there is a sense of the unique. Obviously, he is one of the few people who have interpreted the legends and myths. But, his images of those demigods, the animal world, the Merman - things of this type were unique to himself, I felt. I felt that I had not seen this before... Norval, with his incredible ability with the formal problems of art (colour-design-space) and his commitment to the world of his people, the great Ojibway, give one the sense of power that only genius provides... It is sufficient to say that in the history of Canadian Painting, few have, and will remain giants. Norval shall."
"Throughout his prolific career, Norval was undeniably an active and dominant player in the realization of his dream to become a famous artist and keeper of traditional knowledge. Significant to his life-long aspirations were his primary relationships with both Selwyn Dewdney and Jack Pollock. Morrisseau clearly understood the importance of these two men, and when he no longer needed their support, he simply moved on."
"Morrisseau, the artist, is a teller of tales. But tales such as these are only as powerful as the power of the person who tells them. Behind the visual imagery lies the power of his personal recital of a legend. Behind the legend lies the personal vision that explains everything. It may be difficult to distinguish Ojibway mythic elements from personal ones, or to separate Indian versions of Catholic iconography from Morrisseau's own set of emblems. He is at his most Indian when he offers an explanation of what he is doing. The purpose of doing it may have been to share with the world a heritage of the Great Ojibway that is proud and full of worth. The reason for doing it is very Indian. Where other artists might claim logic, tradition or authority as justification, Morrisseau always justifies himself by the most Indian of all explanations: the imperative of a personal, unique and private vision, the only real consistency which lies at the back of all his work. Everything, ultimately, is validated by Morrisseau's unanswerable claim to be responding to the demands of that personal, unique and private vision."
"Morrisseau's genius for unifying or braking space in his designs is astonishing, as sureness of line. It cannot be classed as primitive art, because both the ideas and the expression evince cultivated thought. As this mysticism has never been recorded he is breaking new ground."
"He is one of the greatest painters Canada has ever produced. One day we were looking at the Group of Seven and he commented 'They paint trees, I paint loons and they connect to the sky'".
"I believe that when Canada 'disappears', Morrisseau will remain. I believe history will note that Norval Morrisseau will be better known than Pablo Picasso. He's more original."
"As his artistic popularity grew aboriginal elders denounced his art with assertions that he was breaking taboos by depicting sacred ceremonies. Morrisseau's resounding response came in the form of an internationally acclaimed sell-out of his first major exhibition at Toronto's, Pollock Gallery (1962). Armed with a stunning original visual vocabulary and a flamboyant flair for the dramatic, Morrisseau created feverishly over the course of forty years, leaving behind an astonishing legacy in paintings and shamanic sculpture... Norval Morrisseau is one of a very few artists in the world who can claim to be the creator of a completely new art movement.”
"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.”
"Familiar yet always new in his art expression NORVAL MORRISSEAU is one of Canada's foremost artists and the acknowledged founder of the Woodland Indian School of Artists. Although his roots lie in the Ojibway culture, his genius as a creative painter defies classification. Morrisseau's self-taught techniques and his intuitive sense of composition and balance are unsurpassed. His paintings with their bold designs and striking colors are instantly recognizable, - they "grow on you" on viewing them. Morrisseau's art has captured the imagination of art lovers everywhere.
Stories of rituals, ceremonies and magical godlike creatures come to life on canvas, as do the visions, dreams and inspirations of Morrisseau experiences, because as he tells us, a Shaman-artist is endowed with special, spiritual powers, "whenever you are looking at my pictures, you are looking at my visions, whatever they may be."
Ilona E. Nagy
"Norval Morrisseau stands alone in his formal innovation and largeness of personal vision. He was the first Indian to study seriously and to update his own cultural beliefs and translate them visually for contemporary Indian and non-Indian audiences. In doing so he became the first Indian to break through the Canadian professional white-art barrier. His brilliance lies in his ability to break away from his own conventions, to constantly renew his vision."
“He blazed a path that many young artists followed. He was a great role model for younger artists. Hics courage, in confronting the oppression, the attempt by government policy which began in the 19th century to silence and hasten the end of traditional indigenous knowledge, it took great courage to confront that. He was an extraordinary man.”
"Norval Morrisseau's most significant and enduring achievement will be measured over generations as the lasting impact of his greatest ambition - to instill pride - makes itself felt in the art of new artists compelled to create by his masterful paintings."
Greg A. Hill
"The aboriginal art community sees him as an icon, both for his esthetic qualities and pioneering qualities."
“Morrisseau’s pictorial influences as a youth were rock paintings of vision quests and ceremonial images and, most significantly, Midewiwin birch bark scrolls - a pictographic record of oral traditions, knowledge and rituals. It is in these sacred drawings that Morrisseau embraced an aesthetic that shaped the artistic style. Using heavy black outlines and interior bodily segmentation, Morrisseau began to produce art that reflected these influences. Morrisseau’s leadership inspired generations of Aboriginal artists to create art within this artistic genre.”
"Few artists have the gift and ability to fulfill the criteria that establishes the reputation of a truly great artist - a creator of masterworks. Certain artists speak for a time in history, some for a place, some for a people. Some are natural and magic technicians, some perfect a new way of seeing - a universal for an entire world. Rare indeed is the artist who does all of these. Norval Morrisseau speaks for the Ojibway, the Woodland Indian of Canada. He paints their mythological past and their fierce future potential. He paints his people larger than life, spiritually huge. He created a method of depiction that had not previously existed. His imagery comes from the ancient petroglyphs, from pictograph language symbols, from stained glass windows of missionary churches, from the flat and brilliant colours of the brutal North of Canada, and from his own fertile imagination. He speaks in the universal voice of a master painter, for all who will look, investigate and understand. Morrisseau paints masterpieces."
"What an intersection: Morrisseau steeped in his grandfather’s tales from Ojibway legend, the Weinsteins in the European art tradition. There were to be many other chapters, of course, in the Morrisseau saga, which ended this week with the grand old painter’s death at 76. But I’ve been thinking about his good fortune in that initial real exposure to the world of art that he was desperate to conquer. Far too often, to my mind, discussion of First Nations art concentrates on themes of racism and paternalism. It’s worth remembering, as we consider Morrisseau’s remarkable career and substantial legacy, that his first important and formative experience with white people who cared deeply about art was apparently entirely sympathetic without being, by the accounts I’ve heard and read, at all condescending. Lucky Morrisseau. Lucky Weinsteins. The greatest nascent artistic talent on the Canadian Shield finds his way into the only Paris-influenced salon in the entire boreal forest—what were the odds? But unique as their relationship was, the pattern it represents is not so unusual. The repeated cross-pollination of Aboriginal and Western art traditions was one of the most important elements in 20th-century cultural history in Canada. And it was not a matter of exploitation, at least not in the case of Morrisseau or the other First Nations art success stories that rank with his, notably the way Inuit and West Coast styles worked their way into our popular conception of a Canadian visual art heritage."
"The comparisons of Norval Morrisseau to Pablo Picasso were, perhaps, unavoidable. Called the 'Picasso of the North' by the French press, Mr. Morrisseau himself saw parallels when, as a young man, he scrawled on the back of a sketch sent to Picasso "from one great artist to another." Indeed. Canada, particularly a generation of native artists, owes much to Mr. Morrisseau, who died Tuesday at 75... Mr. Morrisseau struggled with alcoholism and poverty, but he painted through it all, until his Parkinson's disease and then heart trouble made him too frail. He left behind a voluminous trove of work and a profound legacy: a cultural renaissance that echoes today."
Winnipeg Free Press
"Norval’s humour, personality and philosophy of life continued to shine though our long friendship when there were many hectic, and even dangerous, situations. There is a pool of information garnered though his contacts with some wonderful characters throughout Canada that would provide sufficient material for a number of novels. I think good writers with a sense of humour should take up this challenge and tap into the real and imaginary material that is available for the fast depleting generations that knew Norval and write such novels. I knew him in what I think was his most productive period. This was when he painted for his art goddess and not for his wallet. These were the years when his true primitive legends were painted."
"I was a student and had never heard of Norval Morrisseau but I could feel the greatness emanating from those sheets of paper... I went to the afternoon visitations for Norval Morrisseau on Dec. 6 and 7, 2007 where there was a lot of tension - something I found disturbing and ironic at the same time. It was disturbing because values in conflict are never easily resolved. It was ironic because through his art and his life, Norval has made us all his children. I feel certain after having seen Norval look at his children in Sandy Lake in 1970 and in Toronto in 2004 with eyes of love that Norval’s spirit, hovering somewhere above St. Clair Avenue West and later Spadina, embraced us all."
"Norval Morrisseau's courageous and often controversial approach to his work was instrumental in encouraging First Nations people to know their spirituality, history and culture in order to better understand themselves. He taught us to be proud of who we are. He inspired countless other First Nations people to pursue a career in the arts. His legacy will remain with us and continue to inspire all Canadians for many generations to come."
"Less than one year ago, in December 2007, we lost Norval Morrisseau, one of the most remarkable Canadian painters of the last 50 years. A source of inspiration to generations of artists and of pride for Canadians, his work is celebrated beyond our borders for its singularity and its powerful impact. Morrisseau was a passionate interpreter of the myths and legends of the Obijway nation. In his famous, coloured dreams, he illustrates indigenous stories and gives them new life, and a foundation and relevance in the heart of today’s realities, showing us their undeniable, universal significance."
"Norval Morriseau has drawn upon the spirit of the Anishinabe to create powerful images of mythical beings, woven together in art that tells of the sacredness of all forms of life. This catalogue shows how his extraordinary work gave rise to the Woodland School and awoke fresh interest in First Nations art in the cultural mainstream. As his leading role in this renaissance became more apparent, Norval Morriseau himself became a legend."
James K. Bartleman
"I always felt that Norval Morrissea played a giant part of bringing this sacred art into the open while teaching the children around him "answers to the future if you want them." All you have to do is just listen to yourself, only you know what you want... Morrisseau began with a seed that flourished into this tree of colour where everything's revealed and known, the Secret to harmony with Mother Earth is painted by this new generation every day and there's no stopping now, it's breathing on its own."
"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."
“I could probably write 10 more plays about Norval Morrisseau. His life as an artist and a human being is extraordinary in its scale and its passion. It’s like he’s been everywhere. You say that you’re doing a piece on Norval Morrisseau and everybody has a story about him, whether it was in Thunder Bay or Winnipeg, or Paris or L.A. or Vancouver. And he was very different things to different people. Copper Thunderbird is a very powerful animal to take on. I don’t know of any other artist that has risen despite all odds to become what he is. There were many things in his life that threatened to bring him down, but he was able to keep getting up and rise higher from those experiences”
"It takes a long time to break down walls. If the results of the European arrival in North America are to be understood, it must be in terms of the clash between opposing cultures - one, oral and intuitive; the other, literate and mechanical. The visual arts alone have allowed some limited communication. First, native sensibilities had to adjust to the very notion of art. There is no word in any Indian language that means "art"; native painting always had other significance, either religious or decorative. Morrisseau's revolution changed all that. He made Indian art possible not by ignoring the shamans, but by becoming one himself. A gift from the Thunderbird - his own, even greater, magic."
''He was a role model, visionary and seminal force throughout Native America and Canada. We were especially fortunate to have the great man himself present at the opening of his major retrospective, 'Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist,' at our New York City museum. Through his groundbreaking and vibrant works, he positioned his rich indigenous heritage squarely within modern art; a revolutionary and uplifting achievement that influences contemporary culture through today.'"
"This is a great loss for both the Native and artistic communities of the world. We are honored to have an exhibition of his powerful work on view at this sad time. As I walked through the galleries this morning, I contemplated how his works have uplifted and inspired countless viewers and also have encouraged hundreds of Native artists to realize their own dreams."
"Their great appeal partly derives from Mr. Morrisseau's marrying of an understanding of Indian spirituality with his own formal ambitions as a painter. But he is also a gifted colorist who somehow manages to combine the most eye-popping hues: One painting is colored purple with lime green and bright yellow. New York has many museums with countless exhibitions, but it's been a long time since I saw a show of such potent spirituality, warmth and feeling."
"Master of Woodland Native American art has passed on, leaving a legacy no other artist has left since Pablo Picasso. His ability to bring spirit to canvass obliterated art dealers around the world. His way of orchestrating flowers, birds, animals, fish, insects and reptiles with thin and thick black lines was pioneered by Norval and his ancestors... Norval’s work captured the life not only of his own tribe but Native American spirituality with the natural world. He brought life to the spirit world which Picasso could not match. The genius of Morrisseau was displayed in the stories told by his paintings of Thunder Birds, the Sacred leader of the Winged ones, the Eagle, the Protector of the Ojibway Nation, the Bear, etc. etc. Morrisseau used colour in a way that brought life, awe, mystery and majesticity to our eyes and mind. Norval painted beauty and harmony within the oneness of Native Culture and Mother Earth."
"The longer you stand in front of any of his creations, the more you are drawn into his world. A sense of enlightenments experienced as time stands still and you are taken to a place only he could describe."
"We've met but never in a situation where I had the opportunity to spend time with him. Ours was a natural and intrinsic connection. Norval Morrisseau inspired me in my early, early days when the world was big. His work was an encouragement of 'Stick to what is real... Stay to the core; your base.' He is one of the people in the 1960s who were saying: 'Be who you are no matter how hard it is. Never mind the ridicule.' That was a time of great change for us. Our people were unrolling from the position of being beaten and driven into the ground in shame, coming out of that brainwashing that we were of no value in this society."
"Morrisseau was a true original. He wasn’t afraid to go beyond convention or to think outside the box. His art resides in a special place - the gallery of magic where visionaries let us see beyond what we think we know of the world."
"Morrisseau was committed, from the very start, to preserving the stories and myths of his people. He never wavered. As troubled as his life was, he also went through it with this incredible sense of mission."
"This is the story of one of the most celebrated, most original and most notorious artist in Canadian history. Norval Morrisseau, an aboriginal from the Ojibwa tribe, taught himself to draw and paint in the 1950’s so as to give visual expression to his grandfather’s shamanistic dreams. His works received instant national acclaim when first exhibited in Toronto in 1962. But what unfolded was a tragic and sometimes bizarre personal life that mixed intentional homelessness, public alcoholism and even an entanglement with the Mafia. Yet Morrisseau still managed to become the country’s most collected painter, with some 800 canvasses held by public galleries and to invent a painting style, subsequently called the Woodland school that has become an important form of expression for many native artists in North America."
"He was a courageous Aboriginal painter who, through perseverance and faith in his gift, was able to break through enormous cultural and racial barriers to bring his art not just to Canada, but to the world."
"And while their adoring publics were tittering about the greatness of these new maestros' wild and carnivorous works, the newly reforming masters of orthodoxy continued to mischaracterize the sources of Picasso et al's 'inspiration.' They continued to look down their noses at the 'primitives' (savages) who truly created the source art and their cultures. In Canada, Native artists who painted in styles and forms that grew authentically out of their own cultures had to live with the fact that in their own land their works were 'banished' from the cultural temples of white society - i.e. the major public art galleries. For over 40 years the 'esteemed' Art Gallery of Ontario revealed its ethnocentricity by declaring the works of Morrisseau and others as being fit only to be shown in ethnographic and natural history museums. How barren!"
"Norval Morrisseau inspired thousands, he created a legacy that many followed, he was considered a visionary, a spiritual guru, and a commodity, it is a sad truth that such a great human ended up homeless and asking for change, in some case being judged as a bum rather than a master (which was maybe part of the legacy, most likely though the people who judged him would have never known who he truly was). Yes we can take comfort in the fact that at the end of his life he found himself surrounded by people he loved and cared about and apparently died happy. I can not find comfort in the fact he lived through what he lived. What I can do is pass this story and this knowledge on. Morrisseau would want that, he would also want you to learn from his disparity. The last thing the world needs is another staving artist, what it needs now is leaders and visionaries to help humanity explode into its maximum potential."
"Norval Morrisseau has not left us, love never leaves, it defines life. He was aware as an artist in this world that the quest and the goal of all life is to reach the pinnacle of understanding the concept of love. The subtext of all his life's work - and he heard it in Spirit - "It is essential that all life respect life". Love. His creations were defined by love. Humankind is in the process of discovering the definition of love, and Norval was well aware of this in every cell of his Being. He did everything that was within his powers to move us closer to this understanding, through his paintings."
"He was the first Native Canadian artist to make a deep impression on the mainstream art scene in Canada. He basically paved the way for many Native Canadian artists to begin their road to self expression in the Canadian art world. He also defined a new movement in Canadian art that drew together nature and art in a form that had never been seen before. This new movement became known as the ‘Woodland’ school. There is a wonderful quote from Morrisseau in which he says, “I am merely a channel for the spirit to utilize, and it is needed by a spirit-starved society." How true those words are today. I admire this great artist, his love for his traditional Ojibwa heritage and his stark paintings depicting nature and shaman storytelling have inspired my own work, not so much in style but certainly in motivation. Anyone who paints nature in any form can feel a bond of sorts with all things wild and it was this bond that Morrisseau brought out of the Ojibwa nation to release into society by way of his art."
"But I wonder if any "Canadian" (and yes, in the context of this post I do feel the need to put that word in quotation marks) ever saw this 'real spirit' behind the surface of what we now call Canada better and more vibrantly than the recently, dearly departed Norval Morrisseau. His paintings were literally churning from the inside out. Skeletal and skeletons. Often called "x-ray". People within animals and animals within people and animals within animals within people covered in flowers riding on a fish, and all of it singing in the most glorious colour. And so out there and dangerous, freaky, hallucinogenic, tripping the bounds of sanity, and erotic. And inspired by sacred, ancient aboriginal myth."
"Mr. Morrisseau, an Ojibwa (also called Anishnaabe or Chippewa) shaman, was one of the first native painters to adopt modernist styles to convey traditional aboriginal imagery and to have a crossover career in contemporary art. His style, which became known as Woodland or Legend painting, evoked ancient etchings 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 has been described as perhaps the greatest native artist who ever lived - a primal visionary who gave form to the Ojibway legends and myths told to him by his maternal grandfather Moses "Potan" Nanakonagos."
"From Thunder Bay, Manitoulin Island, Toronto, Jasper Alberta, Santa Fe, Vancouver to Nanaimo, Canada's national treasure, Norval Morrisseau born to power of place, found the power to be. Starting his venturesome life at Sandy Lake Reserve (born in Fort William, now Thunder Bay), the man known as father of "The Woodland School of Art" knew as a child that he was on a mission not to lose his people's culture. The artist's way would preserve it, defying tribal taboos against revealing sacred tales to the outside world.
"Three months ago, tributes poured in for one of the most significant artists in Canada in the last century. Possibly no one had a greater influence on art and artists in this country since the Group of Seven than Norval Morrisseau, founder of the Woodland Art style... Morrisseau spoke of deeply spiritual truths, and abiding messages captured by the tales of his people. It was important stuff - so important that he told the stories in simple drawings with basic colours. If Jesus were an artist, and not a prophet-preacher-teacher-healer, he would have painted like Norval Morrisseau, I am sure."
Rev. Dr. Bill Steadman
"Norval Morrisseau, the great Canadian artist, died at Toronto General Hospital. He was 75. His death after a long and feisty battle with Parkinson's disease won't be the end of the gritty story of the great Anishinabe painter once called "the Picasso of the north" who signed his canvases "Miskwaabik Animiki" or Copper Thunderbird."
"His legacy will be his art, said to comprise thousands of pieces, including paintings and sketches, art like no other ever produced in Canada. Galleries in Canada, the United States and Europe feature his work, still being viewed in shows all over the country. A legacy is usually defined as that which is left behind by a deceased person. Norval's legacy the Woodland School of Art, was established and thriving while he was still painting. Second and third generations of Woodland artists now show and sell their work in Canada and abroad. Wile the first wave of excitement over Woodland painting may have subsided somewaht, a broader appreciation of the work - of its techniques, its roots and its genius - is all but universal among observers, buyers and artists. Norval Morrisseau whose own techniques and genius are more widely honoured than ever, opened the door"
Hazel Fulford/Robert Lavack
* Still image from "The Paradox of Norval Morrisseau" - film by NFB © 1974