Norval Morrisseau

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Norval Morrisseau
Norval Morrisseau.jpeg
Born(1932-03-14)March 14, 1932
Beardmore, Ontario, Canada
DiedDecember 4, 2007(2007-12-04) (aged 75)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
EducationSelf taught
Known for Painter
Movement Woodlands Style
Spouse(s)Harriet Kakegamic
Awards CM

Norval Morrisseau CM RCA (March 14, 1932 – December 4, 2007), [1] also known as Copper Thunderbird, was an Indigenous Canadian artist from the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation. Known as the "Picasso of the North", Morrisseau created works depicting the legends of his people, the cultural and political tensions between native Canadian and European traditions, his existential struggles, and his deep spirituality and mysticism. His style is characterized by thick black outlines and bright colors. He founded the Woodlands School of Canadian art and was a prominent member of the “Indian Group of Seven”.



An Anishinaabe, Morrisseau was born March 14, 1932, [2] on the Sand Point Ojibwe reserve near Beardmore, Ontario. His full name is Jean-Baptiste Norman Henry Morrisseau, but he signs his work using the Cree syllabics writing ᐅᓵᐚᐱᐦᑯᐱᓀᐦᓯ (Ozaawaabiko-binesi, unpointed: ᐅᓴᐘᐱᑯᐱᓀᓯ, "Copper/Brass [Thunder]Bird"), as his pen-name for his Anishnaabe name ᒥᐢᒁᐱᐦᐠ ᐊᓂᒥᐦᑮ (Miskwaabik Animikii, unpointed: ᒥᐢᑿᐱᐠ ᐊᓂᒥᑭ, "Copper Thunderbird").

In accordance with Anishnaabe tradition, he was raised by his maternal grandparents with little connection to his actual parents. [3] His grandfather, Moses Potan Nanakonagos, a shaman, taught him the traditions and legends of his people. [3] His grandmother, Grace Theresa Potan Nanakonagos, was a devout Catholic and from her he learned the tenets of Christianity. [3] The contrast between these two religious traditions became an important factor in his intellectual and artistic development. [3]

At the age of six, Morrisseau was sent to a Catholic residential school, where students were educated in the European tradition, native culture was suppressed, and the use of native language was forbidden. After two years he returned home and started attending a local community school. [4] [5] [6]

At the age of 19, he became very sick. He was taken to a doctor but his health kept deteriorating. Fearing for his life, his mother called a medicine-woman who performed a renaming ceremony: she gave him the new name Copper Thunderbird. [7] According to Anishnaabe tradition, giving a powerful name to a dying person can give them new energy and save their lives. Morrisseau recovered after the ceremony and from then on always signed his works with his new name.

When he started painting, he was discouraged from sharing traditional stories and images outside of the First Nation, but he decided to break this taboo. [8] [9]

Morrisseau contracted tuberculosis in 1956 and was sent to Fort William Sanatorium to recover. There he met his future wife Harriet Kakegamic with whom he had seven children, Victoria, Michael, Peter, David, Lisa, Eugene, and Christian.

After being invited by Ontario Provincial Police Constable, Robert Sheppard, to meet the artist, the anthropologist Selwyn Dewdney became an early advocate of Morrisseau's and was very interested in Morrisseau's deep knowledge of native culture and myth. Dewdney was the first to take his art to a wider public.

Jack Pollock, a Toronto art dealer, helped expose Morrisseau's art to a wider audience in the 1960s. The two initially met in 1962 while Pollock was teaching a painting workshop in Beardmore. [10] As Pollock did not drive, Susan Ross whom Morrisseau had met in 1961 [11] and Sheila Burnford drove Pollock to visit Morrisseau at his home to view more of his works. [10] [11] Struck by the genius of Morrisseau's art, he immediately organized an exhibition of his work at his Toronto gallery. One of Morrisseau's early commissions was for a large mural in the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, a revolutionary exhibit voicing the dissatisfaction of the First Nations People of Canada with their social and political situation.

In 1972, Morrisseau was caught in a hotel fire in Vancouver and suffered serious burns. [12] On that occasion, he had a vision of Jesus encouraging him to be a role model through his art. He converted to the apostolic faith and started introducing Christian themes in his art. A year later he was arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour and was incarcerated for his own protection. He was assigned an extra cell as a studio and was allowed to attend a nearby church.

Morrisseau was the founder of a Canadian-originated school of art called Woodland or sometimes Legend or Medicine painting. His work was influential on a group of younger Ojibwe and Cree artists, such as Blake Debassige, Benjamin Chee Chee, and Leland Bell. His influence on the Woodland school of artists was recognized in 1984 by the Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit Norval Morrisseau and the Emergence of the Image Makers. [13] He spent his youth in remote isolation in northern Ontario, near Thunder Bay, where his artistic style developed without the usual influences of other artists' imagery. As the sole originator of his "Woodland" style he became an inspiration to three generations of artists. [14]

In 1978, Morrisseau was made a Member of the Order of Canada. [15] He was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. [16]

As Morrisseau's health began to decline as a result of Parkinson's disease and a stroke in 1994, [17] he was cared for by his adopted family of Gabe and Michelle Vadas. In 2005 and 2006, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa organized a retrospective of his work. This was the first time that the Gallery dedicated a solo exposition to a native artist. In the final months of his life, the artist used a wheelchair and lived in a residence in Nanaimo, British Columbia. He was unable to paint due to his poor health. He died of cardiac arrest—complications arising from Parkinson's disease on December 4, 2007 in Toronto General Hospital. [18] He was buried after a private ceremony in Northern Ontario next to the grave of his former wife, Harriet, on Anishinaabe land. [18]

The National Arts Centre, urban ink co-production, Copper Thunderbird, premiered on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) on Monday, February 4, 2008. [19] Norval Morrisseau was honoured with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award during the NAAF Awards show in 2008. [20]


Morrisseau was a self-taught artist. [13] He developed his own techniques and artistic vocabulary that captured ancient legends and images that came to him in visions or dreams. He was originally criticized by the native community because his images disclosed traditional spiritual knowledge. Initially he painted on any material that he could find, especially birchbark, and also moose hide. Dewdney encouraged him to use earth-tone colors and traditional material, which he thought were appropriate to Morrisseau's native style.

The subjects of his art in the early period were myths and traditions of the Anishnaabe people. He is acknowledged to have initiated the Woodland School of native art, where images similar to the petroglyphs of the Great Lakes region were now captured in paintings and prints.

His later style changed: he used more standard material and the colors became progressively brighter, eventually obtaining a neon-like brilliance. The themes also moved from traditional myth to depicting his own personal struggles. He also produced art depicting Christian subjects: during his incarceration, he attended a local church where he was struck by the beauty of the images on stained-glass windows. Some of his paintings, like Indian Jesus Christ, imitate that style and represent characters from the Bible with native features. After he joined the new age religion Eckankar in 1976, he started representing on canvas its mystical beliefs.

Morrisseau, who was bisexual, also produced erotic works featuring sexuality between male figures and between male and female figures. Most of these works are now held in private collections. Other works explored Indigenous conceptions of gender fluidity, such as his massive work Androgyny (1983), which was formerly exhibited at Rideau Hall. [21]

The cover art for the Bruce Cockburn album Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws is a painting by Norval Morrisseau.

Fakes and forgeries

On the left, 2004 email from Norval Morrisseau requesting the removal of nine items identified as fakes from sale, directed at an unknown dealer. On the right, a 2007 press release from Norval Morrisseau disavowing any link with the "Morrisseau Family Foundation", and identifying the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society as the sole authority to create a catalogue raisonne of his work. Morrisseau Declarations 3.jpg
On the left, 2004 email from Norval Morrisseau requesting the removal of nine items identified as fakes from sale, directed at an unknown dealer. On the right, a 2007 press release from Norval Morrisseau disavowing any link with the "Morrisseau Family Foundation", and identifying the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society as the sole authority to create a catalogue raisonné of his work.

The prevalence of fakes and forgeries was of deep concern to Morrisseau, particularly during his later years, and he actively sought to remove these from the marketplace. [22] To contact the Estate of Norval Morrisseau please go to

In 2005, Morrisseau established the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society (NMHS). The Society is currently compiling a database of Norval Morrisseau paintings to discredit many prevalent Morrisseau forgeries. This committee, not affiliated with any commercial gallery or art dealer, comprises highly respected members of the academic, legal and Aboriginal communities working on a volunteer basis. It is charged with creating a complete catalogue raisonné of Norval Morrisseau artwork. The NMHS is currently researching Morrisseau art, provenance and materials and techniques in order to complete the task assigned to them by the artist. The NMHS continue their work and in 2008, were in Red Lake, Ontario to research additional information and art by the artist. [23]

The Art Dealers Association of Canada (ADAC) issued the following directive in the Winter 2007 newsletter to their membership: "The Art Dealers Association of Canada is enacting a rule and regulation that no certificates of authenticity will be issued by any members of ADAC with respect to any works or purported works by Norval Morrisseau and that the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society is the sole authority for the authentication of works by Norval Morrisseau." ADAC also revoked the membership of a dealer who failed to comply with this directive.

Morrisseau also engaged in more direct intervention, identifying fake and forged works available for sale, particularly those purported to be painted by him in the so-called "70s style". He wrote to galleries and made sworn declarations identifying items being sold as "fakes and imitations". More than ten sworn declarations [24] were directed to at least seven dealers and galleries during 1993–2007, requesting that fake and forged works be removed or destroyed. These dealers were the Artworld of Sherway, Gallery Sunami, Maslak McLeod Gallery, Bearclaw Gallery, Gary Bruce Thacky (AKA Gary Lamont of Thunder Bay, Ontario) and Randy Potter Estate Auctions. [24]

Building on Morrisseau’s efforts, for the last 20 years, the battle to stop the proliferation of fakes has waged. Lawyers, doctors, Morrisseau’s friends, apprentice and estate, as well as leading native art scholars, government workers and many others, including musician Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies, have tried to help in Morrisseau’s battle by exposing the existence of a fraud ring manufacturing fake Morrisseau paintings. The 2019 documentary film There Are No Fakes , directed by Jamie Kastner, helped to bring this issue into the public view. Recently in 2019, after hearing testimony from people inside the fraud ring itself, the Ontario Superior and Appeal courts recognized the existence of that fraud. The courts also found that the Maslak-McLeod Gallery, a vendor of works attributed to Morrisseau, had acted fraudulently.: [25]

“The (previous lower court) trial judge erred in failing to find that the Gallery’s provision of a valid provenance statement was a term of the purchase and a warranty, not mere puffery,” the new appeal decision states. Mr. McLeod’s assertion that the painting was genuine was only matched by his elusiveness in demonstrating that fact, which can only be explained as deliberate,” said the appeal panel. “With respect to the provenance statement, Mr. McLeod made a false representation, either knowing that it was false and without an honest belief in its truth, or he made the statement recklessly without caring whether it was true or false, with the intent that Mr. Hearn would rely upon it, which he did, to his personal loss.” Gallery owner Joseph McLeod is no longer alive; McLeod’s estate has been ordered to pay Hearn $50,000 for breach of contract and breach of the Sale of Goods Act, plus punitive damages of $10,000." [26]

The debate concerning the authenticity of the "70s paintings" commonly found in the marketplace, continues with ongoing litigation. [27]

Law enforcement have launched an active investigation into the Norval Morrisseau art fraud as confirmed by the National Post:

"However, police in Thunder Bay say they have now launched a criminal investigation into a possible art fraud ring involving Morrisseau paintings. Spokesman Scott Paradis said Friday investigators are “not prepared to speak about potential suspects or persons of interest.” "The criminal investigation is one of several major developments to take place after what’s shown in the film, which ends with the outcome of the lawsuit." [28]

Solo exhibitions

See also

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Further reading