Canadian Art #83, Jan. - Feb. 1963.
[ 1,577 words ]
'I am Norval Morrisseau have the Indian name Copper Thunderbird. I am a born artist.' So this thirty-year-old Ojibway introduces himself in the preamble to a personal collection of his people's folklore. A simple statement of fact, as anyone who views reproductions of his work may see.
In the spring of 1960, when a provincial police constable in the Red Lake area sent me samples of Morrisseau's paintings, done in school crayons and poster colour on kraft paper, I was excited but skeptical. During my field work for the Royal Ontario Museum recording Indian rock paintings in northwestern Ontario, I had run across another form of picture-writing, perhaps less than a century old, incised on birchbark for ritualistic purposes. Did this young Ojibway have access to a living pictorial tradition that I had been unaware of? How else could such sureness of form and style emerge?
That summer Red Lake was on my itinerary and I arranged to spend a solid afternoon interviewing Morrisseau. As a person he was impressive. Behind the quiet self-possession was a passion to establish the identity of his people, through his art, in the eyes of the non-Indian world. But — more remarkable — he clearly had no awareness of any source for his visual images outside of himself.
'My idea is, why I draw them,' to quote from the transcript of my interview, 'see, there's lots of stories that are told in Ojibway but that wasn't enough for me. I wanted to draw them — that's from my own self — my own idea what they look like.'
At the gold mine in Cochenour where he was then working he had struck up a friendship with the mine doctor, himself an amateur artist of some ability, Joseph Weinstein. Weinstein and his Paris-born wife were world travellers, with a collection of primitive art, and an ample art library. When I visited them the next day I leafed through the volumes of reproductions that Norval had seen. With few exceptions, the doctor and his wife told me, contemporary and classical western painting had appealed very little to him. Navajo and West Coast art, on the other hand, had made a strong impact, although without any visible influence on his painting. The last traces of any doubt that might have lingered vanished when they brought out their own collection of Morrisseau's paintings on birchbark. These owed nothing to any other art form. This was an artist who relied solely on his inner vision.
Later, it is true, he used some of the rock painting motifs that I had recorded, especially the Agawa rendering of that sinister spirit of troubled waters, the Great Lynx, Mishipizhiw. Occasionally, too, he would use any picture of an animal that interested him as a jumping-off point for a painting. But invariably these were transformed, with the sure instinct of the born artist, into highly personal concepts.
As a child Norval lived with his mother, grandfather and other relatives on a small reserve north of Macdiarmid and west of Beardmore on the shore of Lake Nipigon. There were no books. Magazines and newspapers were a rarity. The few pictures he saw were labels on food packages or canned goods, trademarks on guns and traps, or patterns on the cheap cotton goods the women wore. In ancient times there would have been totem signs or dream symbols painted, carved, or embroidered in porcupine quills, on many objects of common use. But all that had ceased long ago. As early as 1650 the first courieurs de bois penetrated the Nipigon country, and European trade goods began their swift erosion of native crafts. Morrisseau's childhood in the 1930s was centuries removed from the pre-contact modes of his ancestors.
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?
The answer surely lies in his childhood. Lying on the rough cabin floor on a winter night he would listen to his grandfather's voice, rising and falling through the darkness in the flowing cadences of the Ojibway tongue. His grandfather, reminiscing over the tales his grandfather had learned from even more remote ancestors. Of Nanabozho or Ouiskaychauk and his mischievous tricks or breath-taking exploits, of Wendigo the spine-chilling cannibalistic ice spirit, of shaking-tents and conjuring, of the noseless, fur-faced men who paddled their stone canoes into the solid rock where the pictographs were painted. Today the bond between Norval and his grandfather remains a living bridge into the Ojibway past. Here through the spoken word, though so much of that past has been lost, a wealth of imagery, humour and wisdom remains. There are blue eyed, heavily bearded men in the Nipigon country today whose only tongue is Ojibway. And though Morrisseau's origins may be more than a quarter French (he speaks none) the magic of the living past has made him, like them, wholly Ojibway in identity.
Late in Norval Morrisseau's teens this identity demanded an outlet. He filled the cabin with pictorial versions of the characters in his grandfather's tales. But soon there were doubts and misgivings. This young man had a powerful name — was this some kind of conjuring? The ancient taboos asserted their strength, and Norval stopped painting. Of the years that followed Norval says only that they were 'bad'. In his twenty-sixth year he was referred for treatment to the tuberculosis sanatorium in Fort William.
His year at the sanatorium was decisive. Sick and separated from his family, suspicious of the 'white' man's medicine, he had the significant dream which in the old days each young Ojibway male fasted in seclusion to experience. Now he had the assurance that he could break the ancient taboos with impunity, protected day and night from the hostile power of the legendary spirits that periodically had threatened to possess him. In a fellow patient, Harriet, he found the woman he felt would make an ideal mother for his children. They married a year later and moved into the company house at Cochenour provided by the mine where Norval had found employment.
For two years he devoted all his spare time to painting, and writing about, the legendary figures of his people and the more personal symbols of his dreams. Then came a grant for artists' materials from the Indian Branch, followed closely by a donation from Allister Grosart and Ottawa friends that enabled Morrisseau to give full time to his art. Last summer his chance encounter in Beardmore with Jack Pollock, artist-owner of the Pollock Gallery in Toronto, brought about his first one-man show, critical acclaim, and a dramatic pre-opening sellout. Now that Norval Morrisseau has been accepted into the mainstream of Canadian art, how shall we evaluate him? Is his work anything more than a fascinating novelty, blown up beyond its merits by the picturesqueness of its subject matter? Is it an expression of the new realism, surrealist in essence without the psycho-analytic pretensions of that movement? Should we label it, along with Eskimo sculpture and graphics, as primitive?
'Today,' writes Morrisseau, 'we wonder and are distracted by the white man's ways that we cannot cope with. Those of us who are lucky have made it. But a lot of us are still behind, by trying to live like our white brothers and their religion, ignoring our great ancestors' culture. If one has an intelligent mind we could live side by side with our ancient ways and same time get us where we should be.'
In his tortured efforts to reconcile the skepticism of a superior intelligence with the fantasies of his people's folklore, to be a leader of his people without raising himself above the humblest of them, to give proudly from the richness of his heritage and yet open his mind to the truths that lie buried in the bewildering complexities of the dominant culture, Morrisseau is as contemporary as space travel or anti-matter. I have seen him at times torn apart and made desperate with doubt. I have also seen him serene in an upsurge of power that issues from each fresh resolution of his inner agonies.
This is no ordinary man. And I predict, whatever label we may finally bestow on his work, he will continue to produce extraordinary paintings.
Canadian Art #83, Jan. - Feb. 1963.
Text: © Selwyn Dewdney. All rights reserved.
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