On March 11th, 2015, the Yukon Arts Centre presented the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre`s TransMigration to a packed house. This inspiring presentation of dance, music and design celebrates the artwork of iconic Ojibwe shaman-artist Norval Morrisseau (1932-2007).

Known as the `Picasso of the North`, Norval Morrisseau is a celebrated Canadian First Nations visual artist. His style is iconic -It is characterized by stylized X-Ray articulations revealing the inner anatomical features of the figures, bright colours, pictographic depictions in profile and bold black outlines, and initially used traditional materials such as birch bark. This style founded The Woodland School of Art, which would later influence three generations of aboriginal artists.

Norval Morrisseau at the McMichael Canadian Collection, 1979 Photo by Ian Samson, McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives

Morrisseau was raised by his grandparents in Northern Ontario, where he taught himself painting, printmaking and illustration. His grandmother`s Catholic faith and grandfather`s Midewiwin teachings from the Anishinaabe culture would come to be a huge influence on the iconography and motifs of his paintings. Later, Morrisseau would study holistic Eckankar spirituality, which would again influence his work.

Totem figures like the bear, thunderbird, snake, turtle, and demi gods, shamans, children and plants are the recurring subjects of Morrisseau`s paintings. This iconography, traditionally incised on birch bark or on the rocks of the Canadian Shield were taken from the spiritual world of the Anishinaabe and passed on through ancient mythology and the personal dreams of the artist, who created a unique visual language of symbols and colors.

Serpent, 1970, Acrylic, 24 x 36`
Photo Courtesy of Mayberry Fine Arts

Morrisseau`s symbols are modern and spiritually diverse, yet still celebrate the oral traditions of the Anishinaabe, a paradox that only makes Morrisseau`s oeuvre more intriguing.


Three Gulls, 1972, Acrylic, 35.57 x 31.75`
Photo Courtesy of Mayberry Fine Arts

Morrisseau`s early style was characterized by subdued earth tones and colors. Later on, his style would develop to intuitively explore bright colors which expressed his personal charisma and optimism.  He has been described as a `colourist` who, like Henri Matisse, used intense colours in his paintings which took on a dominant feature in his work.

“The world in which we live in is dark, and it’s even getting darker…It needs to be brighter.”
—Norval Morrisseau

Untitled, 1971, Oil on Paper, 62.5 x 32`
Photo Courtesy of Mayberry Fine Arts

While celebrating the spirituality and culture of the Anishinaabe, Morrisseau also broke with this same tradition by disclosing their sacred teachings pictorially. This modernist approach to Anishinaabe spirituality was new to the world and significant in his artistic career. Following this, Morrisseau became an Anishinaabe shaman, a spiritual healer who relieved suffering through the powerful medicine contained in the iconography of his paintings.

"I am a shaman-artist. Traditionally, a shaman's role was to transmit power and the vibrating forces of the spirit through objects known as talismans. In this particular case, a talisman is something that apparently produces effects that are magical and miraculous. My paintings are also icons; that is to say, they are images which help focus on spiritual powers, generated by traditional belief and wisdom. I also regard myself as a kind of spiritual psychologist. I bring together and promote the ultimate harmony of the physical and the spiritual world." 
--Norval Morrisseau, in Lister Sinclair and Jack Pollock, The Art of Norval Morrisseau (Toronto: Methuen, 1979)

You may also know Morrisseau by his Anishnaabe name `Copper Thunderbird`. This title was given to him as a child during a traditional healing ceremony by an Anishnaabe Medicine Woman.  We can notice Morrisseau`s signature in Cree syllabics on `Self Portrait`, a characteristic he repeated on all of his works after 1957. 

Self Portrait, 1980, Acrylic on Paper, 32 x 24`
Photo Courtesy of Mayberry Fine Arts


Carl Ray (1943-1978) was a First Nations artist who was a contemporary of Morrisseau`s and was influenced by the Woodlands Style.  Morrisseau`s large scale collaboration with Carl Ray for the `Indians of Canada` Pavilion at Expo  67  in Montreal is shown at the end of this video. This mural represents both Anishinaabe and Christian teachings and brought great exposure to both artists and to the Woodland School of Art.

Creation, 1970, Acrylic on Paper, 20.75 x 14.25`
Photo Courtesy of Mayberry Fine Arts

Morrisseau achieved many significant landmarks in his artistic career, and received several accolades including a membership to the Order of Canada in 1978, the first ever First Nations Solo Show at the National Gallery of Canada in 2007 and acknowledgement as Grand Shaman by the Ojibwe in 1995.

His work can be found in several prominent national and international collections, including the collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

The Kaha:wi Dance Theatre wrapped up a stunning performance at the Yukon Arts Centre last week to travel onto Vancouver for upcoming performances at The Cultch. We loved this celebration of Morrisseau`s work and encourage all those who appreciate the Woodlands Style to see it!