Norval Morrisseau: one of the early First Nations artists

1987 photo of Morrisseau (Greg Kinch/Vancouver Sun)

Norval Morrisseau was born on either March 14,1931 in Thunder Bay or March 14, 1932 in the Beardmore area of the Sand Point Objibwe Reserve in Northwestern Ontario, and was raised according to tradition by his maternal grandparent. His grandfather was a shaman and his grandmother a devout Catholic and he early on absorbed the teachings of both these traditional religions and incororated the contrasts and tensions between the two teachings.

Norval Morrisseau's house on MacKenzie Island

At the age of 6 he was sent to a Catholic residential school and after two years there, returned home to be schooled locally. There are indications that he may have suffered abuse at the residential school – taking into account that few 6 year olds are resilient enough to handle leaving all they have known so far for a strange language, strange people, strange food and a religiously oppressive ernvironment, even in the absence of direct abuse, the negative effect on him must have been immense.

Morrisseau - face in profile

As he matured, Morrisseau painted influenced by both religious threads running through his life. He ws largely self-taught and used strong images painted on whatever materials came to hand  often including birch bark and moosehide. In the early part of his career, he was encouraged by an anthropologist he met to use darker earth colours, but his range of colours gradually took in the whole spectrum and especially clear strong and bright colours.

At the age of 19, suffering an unknown but serious illness his grandmother took him to a native healer after all else had failed. He was renamed, a traditional method of giving an ailing person new strengths, and immediately began to heal – his new name – Copper Thunderbird – became his signature in syllabics on his paintings.

Jack Pollack whom Morrisseau met in Beardmore in 1962 arranged a Toronto showing of Morrisseau’s work upon  returning to Toronto and Morrisseau’s reception on the Canadian art scene was assured.


As Morrisseau began to move in the same circles as other First Nation artists, he met the other two strong Ojibwe figures of that time: Daphne Odjig and Carl Ray and they began developing the First Nations and Woodland Indian art movement. Canadians adopted their art very quickly and during the Centennial year Morrisseau and others were key figures in the large installations that took place at Expo’67, at the Museum of Man and at Pacific events in BC.

A figure as large or larger than life, Morrisseau had a fair amount of controversy attached to his name, and his actions and associates sometimes were questioned. There was a continuing issue of counterfeit Morrisseau’s – such issues often come up if an artist is selling well and seen as being easy to imitate. In more recent years, Morrisseau was addressing this issue himself by attempting to remove these counterfeits from the market, but the issue, depite these attempts and the formation of a group to assess and authenticate paintings continues to receive press.

Norval Morrissea - Fruit of Life

Morrisseau lived the later years of his life in British Columbia, and died there in 2007 at the age of 75.

Below are listed some useful links to learn more about Morrisseau and his work.

I hope you are enjoying this series on the earlier painters in Canada’s First Nations art movement – I know I’ve learned a lot from researching the subject.

Be sure to get in touch with to discuss various works he currently has in inventory – and check out the specially promoted pieces Mich and I are featuring – they are listed in last week’s post.

Bye for now – Mich and Janet



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