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NORVAL MORRISSEAU: ARTIST AS SHAMAN
BY BARRY ACE

 

Perhaps more than any other Aboriginal artist in Canada, there is a voluminous collection of published and unpublished manuscripts and writings on the art of Norval Morrisseau. Yet today, we are no closer to arriving at an understanding of this larger-than-life Ojibway painter who remains shrouded under a veil of mystery and speculation. While many have sought to uncover the romanticized “Ishi-like” primitive who draws from his Ojibway heritage and secretive Midéwiwin spiritual teachings, few have dared to venture into a critique of this complex man. Perhaps, even more poignantly, Morrisseau and those around him, were actively engaged in the mythic construction and public re/presentation of Morrisseau as a contemporary primitive.

A construct that has not only served as a mask to shelter undesirable influences of modernity, but also as a strategic marketing ploy that was incredibly successful in stimulating a lucrative art buying public, by offering them a rare opportunity to own a fragmentary glimpse of a mythical past. As the art buying public, dealers, and art institutions engaged in what can only be described as a Morrisseau “feeding frenzy”, the complexity involved in re-inventing, controlling and sheltering Morrisseau’s public and private spaces from the outside world became a hugely convoluted and contradictory task for all involved, including Morrisseau himself. The personal impact of this monstrosity of an illusion was so enormous, that few were immune from its negative impacts, and perhaps most tragically of all, was the toll it took on the physical and emotional state of Norval Morrisseau.

For many years following his arrival on the Canadian art scene, Morrisseau and those closest to him were mostly successful in shielding the constructed image of Norval Morrisseau from any outside critical scrutiny, but they were less successful in controlling and influencing internal cynicism and scrutiny from within his Ojibway cultural milieu and community. It is from this unique cultural vantage point that we can only now begin to meticulously unravel and dissect the very premise and raisonne d’etre behind the construction of this mythical Ojibway Medusa called Norval Morrisseau, where we find the primitive artist-as-shaman mysteriously shrouded in a romanticized stasis existing simultaneously as a public dream and a private myth.

Having had the extraordinary opportunity, early on in my career, to work for the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) in the Indian Art Centre as Chief Curator, I had the honour to meet, interview and spend time with numerous prominent Aboriginal artists from across Canada, including Norval Morrisseau. As well, I have had the unbridled privilege to work with what can only be described as the most significant collection of contemporary Canadian Aboriginal art in the world. It was during this period, in the summer of 1995, that I had my first opportunity to meet the legendary Norval Morrisseau. Norval was in Ottawa, with his close friend and business manager Gabor Vadas, to attend an exhibition and honouring ceremony bestowed upon him by the Assembly of First Nations. I clearly remember receiving a call from a downtown hotel where Norval asked me if it would be alright if he came and visited the Indian Art Centre. I told him that of course he could come over, and he concluded our conversation by asking me to meet him downstairs with “one of those yellow slips of paper (taxi chit), since he did not have a lot of money to spend on taxi rides.

I agreed to meet him in front of the DIAND headquarters at 10 Wellington Street in Hull, Quebec. Gabor was the first to emerge from the taxi, and I said to him how pleased I was that Norval had decided to come over to see his works in the collection. Gabor was a bit standoffish at first, and I wrote this off as simply a socially awkward situation. In the back seat of the taxi sat Norval Morrisseau looking a lot older than I had expected him to be, but still, he appeared as stately and astute as ever. Both Gabor and I helped Norval out of the taxi to an upright position. Although he seemed to in some pain brought on by severe stiffness in his legs, his staunch independence and gargantuan charisma had not suffered in the least. Norval immediately told me that he had just had an operation to replace both kneecaps, and that his doctor had told him to remain confined to his wheelchair. He went on to explain that after only a couple of months, he went to see an elder on the Squamish reserve near Vancouver, who told him to “throw away that wheelchair”.

Norval said he complied and the old man then gave him a “grizzly bear walking stick”. He went on to recount that his old man revealed to him that “this walking stick is medicine”. I was simultaneously astonished and taken aback, because, Norval, without any prompting from me, immediately launched into a diatribe on sacred healing practices. I have always found this notion of other Aboriginal people feeling the need to validate their “Indianness”, especially to another Aboriginal somewhat difficult to deal with. I quickly came to the conclusion that this was the Norval that I had read about and seen on film, at least the real public Norval Morrisseau. I remember thinking to myself how important performance and self-validation has become in contemporary Aboriginal communities, and I understood that this was largely based on the desire for authenticity.

Norval’s walking stick only further embellished the mystique of his public “Indian” persona, and I remember this particular walking stick was really phenomenal. The top of the stick had a realistically carved full-figured grizzly bear, and affixed directly below, was a real grizzly bear paw, complete with fur, pads and claws clutching a huge white translucent ten inch octagonal crystal. Surrounding the bottom half of the walking stick, were row upon row of triangular rattles, honed from the hooves of deer that clacked and swayed in unison to Morrisseau’s labored gate. To further compliment his shamanistic persona, Norval wore an incredibly intense red and black northwest coast jacket with a huge graphic Haida thunderbird motif that covered the entire garment. His shoulder length hair was slightly unkempt, jutting out from his head at all angles forming a haloed tangle of black and grey strands. Looped around his neck, he donned a small grouping of medicinal roots resembling miniature two-legged torsos side-by- side, each sewn together with sinew. In his right hand, he clutched a beautifully incised birch-bark container suspended on a thick strip of tanned hide.

Norval proceeded to tell me that this was his “medicine pouch” that contained an assortment of traditional medicines and remedies that he always carried with him. As we entered the main foyer of the building, Norval was unequivocally aware of his surroundings as men and women in power suits rushed past on their way to meetings throughout the Les Terrasses de la Chaudiere complex. Commanding absolute attention, Norval pounded his grizzly bear walking stick on the granite floor of the main foyer and the sound of the rattles emanated throughout the stone interior. His eclectic and eccentric appearance immediately stopped passers by dead in their tracks. He stared back at them for a moment without uttering a single word, and he turned to me and said softly, “There, I have their attention now. Let’s go and have some tea.” I felt like I had just taken part in some kind of strange theatrical ritual of the past. Something so compelling that I was immediately drawn into it and positioned not only as witness, but as an active participant in Norval’s public performance piece. It was truly an amusing intervention and interruption. Morrisseau had wittingly demonstrated to me the power and effectiveness of his public persona, a time and space where theatre becomes art.

After our tea, I spent most of the early afternoon with Norval and Gabor, pouring over DIAND’s vast collection of Morrisseau works and ephemera, while Norval intermittently interjected personal observations and reflections on various aspects related to the works and manuscripts strewn on the table in front of us. When I began opening the archival grey boxes of materials, I observed Norval slowly surveying the neatly wrapped papers, manuscripts and drawings. I could not help but begin to wonder what was going on in Norval’s mind, confronted with a good proportion of his personal handwritten letters and manuscripts sent to Selwyn Dewdney of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in the early 1960s.

As more of the material was unveiled, I immediately began to sense tension emanating from Gabor, and he nervously turned to me, and in a very controlled and forthright manner, asked me what the Department was doing with so much of Norval’s personal belongings. For a moment, I was taken aback, but I went on to explain to both Gabor and Norval that the Department had purchased the collection from the Nancy Poole auction of Selwyn Dewdney’s estate in 1985. The Department purchased the material for $35,000, in an attempt to thwart the sale of the collection to a New York City art dealer interested in acquiring the collection. As well, the foresight of then Indian Art Centre manger Tom Hill had ensured that this national treasure remained intact and in Canada. Gabor swiftly turned to Norval and said, “Why did you give so much of your personal stuff to Selwyn?” “Did he take it from you?” “I think we should take all of this back.” Norval sat motionless for a moment, and he slowly shifted his head to look directly at Gabor and said, “Selwyn was my friend, that’s why I gave it to him. He was my friend.”

Norval went on to say that he had often wondered what had ever happened to this material, and he said that he was glad to find out that the Department had acquired the collection, and that it was in safe-keeping. These letters are the only handwritten documentation of its kind that remains from the long-standing relationship between artist Norval Morrisseau and Selwyn Dewdney, a Research Associate in the Department of New World Archaeology at the Royal Ontario Museum. The letters span the years 1961 to 1977 and provide an unprecedented précis account of Morrisseau’s prolific career and personal observations and guidance of several key players who helped Morrisseau along as he broke onto the Canadian art scene in the 1960s.

During this visit with Norval in 1995, he answered many questions I had about the manuscripts and artwork contained in the collection, and I remember at one point, we came upon a small painting on two fragments of birch-bark, stitched together with spruce root. It immediately reminded me of several old Ojibway Midéwiwin scrolls I had seen at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I asked Norval about this particular piece, and he told me that it was in fact a remnant of a birch-bark scroll that originally belonged to his grandfather. Norval went on to say that his grandfather Moses (Potan) was a Midé elder. “This was my grandfather’s [pointing to the incised figures and lines scratched into the surface], and I painted this [pointing to the symbols and imagery painted in acrylic overtop of the incised markings] on top.” I was curious to know what medium he was using when he was painting on bark and roofing back paper. He told me he would often paint with oil, acrylic or tempera, and sometimes when supplies were low, he would use any combination available. I was impressed with his ability to recall time, place and events, so I asked him if he remembered painting on this particular work on birch-bark.

He looked at me and said, “A lot of people ask me if I remember doing a particular painting, and I tell them of course I remember doing that painting, and I remember exactly what I was thinking about at the time when I was doing it” (Morrisseau, personal conversation, August 30, 1995). Before leaving the Indian Art Centre, Norval took from his birch-bark box a small vial containing an amber-like fluid, and he removed the wax seal and drank the substance. He turned to me and handed me the empty vial and said, “Now, you put this in that box too.” I remember thinking, at the time, how clearly Norval understood his now legendary role, and how any extraneous ephemera he was wearing, handling or carrying was somehow connected to the validation of his shaman persona, and like the Dewdney time-capsule, all must be preserved, documented and protected for the sake of posterity. I also began to understand how important it was to Norval to maintain his public persona as artist and shaman and how difficult it was for him to distinguish after so many years, what was real and what was not.

After Norval and Gabor left, I began leafing through an old copy of Tawow magazine published in 1974. I came across a film review by Tom Hill of the National Film Board of Canada’s The Paradox of Norval Morrisseau. Hill noted that the film was “an intelligent and sensitive viewpoint developed on an artist so complex that any attempt at an analysis of his art and personality would ultimately only skim the surface (Tawow 1974, p.4)”. Still, I thought, after almost twenty-two years, Hill’s statement couldn’t have been any closer to the truth. And it was on this late summer afternoon in 1995 that I too, realized that I had only begun to scratch the surface of this legendary and paradoxical figure.

Yet in contrast to all of his complexities and contradictions, his distinctive and prolific paintings, his beautifully articulated legends and stories, and his legendary public performance, I felt that the some of the truth behind the construction of Norval Morrisseau must lie somewhere deep within the Morrisseau-Dewdney letters. And if I were ever going to come close to understanding this truth, I would have to take the letters in their entirety and begin to fill in the blanks. As I began to read and reflect on the correspondence, I soon began to realize just how profound, intense and determined Morrisseau’s letters were. I also came to the undeniable conclusion that Morrisseau not only knew who he wanted to be, but also how he was going to get there. Yet, in spite of his relentless and complex negotiation strategies, there was one oversight that Morrisseau failed to take into consideration, the personal toll this arduous journey would have on him. A painful and tragic toll that would not only leave him physically and emotionally scarred and debilitated, but also continually plague him throughout the course of his entire career.

For me, having access to these letters that remain relatively obscure and inaccessible, has provided me with a rare opportunity to trace the origin of Morrisseau’s public persona and to see who else played a critical role in aiding this construction. From the outset, Morrisseau was already utilizing strategies to position himself as a “carrier and holder of traditional knowledge” and he used his privileged position to garner the trust of Dewdney and other potential advocates. What else becomes quickly evident is Morrisseau’s ability to shift his persona from one of naivety and innocence, to mysticism and esotericism, to profundity and genius and to do whatever else may be advantageous to a particular situation. Yet through it all, one can also see clear examples where narcissism and manipulation were pivotal to ensuring that he could play individuals off against themselves to advance his cause, and later, where he uses these strategies to deliberately reject, sabotage and undermine, these very relationships he worked so hard to garner. This is also well born out in agent Jack Pollock’s autobiography, Letters to Dear M. Pollock unequivocally states that Morrisseau was a master manipulator who often rejected the advice of Pollock and even went so far as to turn on Pollock, dragging him into a lengthy and ridiculous court case. Yet, in spite of all the outrageous antics and performances that transpired between Pollock and Morrisseau, Jack still admired Morrisseau and continued to support, promote and contribute to Morrisseau’s success as noted in the 1979 publication Art of Norval Morrisseau.

In his autobiography Pollock paints a very flattering picture of Morrisseau by stating that “one hesitates to use the word genius and, indeed, the qualities necessary for such a term are rare; however, the contribution to the Canadian cultural scene made by, his incredible ability with the formal problems of art (colour - design - space) and his commitment to the world of his people, gives one the sense of power and image that only genius provides (Pollock 1974, p.5.)”.

The letters begin in 1960, when Selwyn Dewdney was in the Nipigon/Thunder Bay region of north-western Ontario conducting research into rock art sites. During one of his visits, Dewdney began hearing about a young Ojibway artist who would soon become an important informant to him on the locality and meaning behind sacred rock art sites. Surprisingly, it was Selwyn Dewdney who first met Morrisseau, presaging Pollock’s first encounter by 2 years. Over the next 15 years, Dewdney would continue a close relationship with Morrisseau, and continue his research on the Ojibway petroglyphs, pictographs and birch bark scrolls, published in Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes (1962) (co-edited with Kenneth E. Kidd, Curator of Ethnology, ROM) and The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway (1975).

Although Dewdney’s initial interest in Morrisseau was strictly motivated by his personal work on rock art sites, Selwyn quickly began to take an avid interest (as an artist himself) in the artistic and literary aspirations of informant Norval Morrisseau. Dewdney actively bought Norval’s work and introduced his work to friends and southern art dealers and to his colleagues at the Royal Ontario Museum. Dewdney further assisted Morrisseau by agreeing to help him with the editing and publishing of Morrisseau’s seminal literary work Legends of My People, The Great Ojibway (1965).

The first reference to Norval Morrisseau appears in a letter from the summer of 1960, sent to Dewdney from Constable Bob Sheppard, who at the time, was working with the Ontario Provincial Police on Mackenzie Island. Sheppard’s letter introduces Norval as a young, energetic and aspiring artist from the community of Beardsmore. From the outset, it appears that Sheppard was also quite taken with Morrisseau’s cultural tenacity and distinctiveness of his art work. Sheppard obviously had close familiarity with Morrisseau, and from his letter, one immediately gets the impression that he really wants to help Morrisseau by recommending him to Dewdney:

“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 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 (DIAND, ADAS 306065 June 7, 1960, BS)”.

The letter from Bob Sheppard must have certainly sparked Selwyn’s interest, especially when Bob stated that Norval “studies and collects Indian lore” and has “plenty of access to his material being an Indian himself”. Dewdney was always on the lookout for informants to assist him in his work on rock art sites. One month later, Selwyn was in Beardsmore interviewing Norval. The day after their first encounter, Selwyn appeared to be genuinely delighted with the young artist’s potential, as he recounted in a letter home to his wife Irene in London, Ontario:
“Sunday morning we took a L&F kicker over to Mackenzie Island, and spent most of the day with Bob: taking notes on his description of Indian dance routines, eating lunch, interviewing the amazing Norval Morriseau... It was a really weird experience the day before, meeting an Indian who (a) was filled with a deep pride of race, origin and identity (b) was almost a stereotype of everything you expect to find in an artist : sensitivity, a sureness about what he wanted to paint, didn’t want to paint, liked and rejected, a craving for recognition, complete disinterest in money and material rewards. He is 28, married (to a woman he met in the San at Fort William, who is now pregnant), tall, unmistakably Indian in features. Maybe I’m a bit rosy-eyed about him; but there was a quiet dignity and gentleness with strength that tempt me to use the word nobility.” (DIAND, ADAS 306065, July 13, 1960, SD).

From Selwyn’s initial account of Norval, it is clear that Morrisseau had already arrived at the decision to become a famous artist and he seemed to have all the charismatic and artistic attributes to make it happen. Furthermore, Norval could never have made such a strong impression on Selwyn had he not already possessed a deep understanding of his Ojibway culture, for clearly Dewdney was quite adept at singling out imposters. In the same letter, Selwyn recounted to his wife that he had “spent a rather fruitless afternoon with Bob interviewing two Indians, but missing the man reputed to be (I now doubt it) a Medayweninny (DIAND, ADAS 306065, July 13, 1960, SD)”. Selwyn must have perceived something extraordinary about Norval to speak so highly of someone of whom he had just met.

It was on this first visit that Selwyn also met Dr. Weinstein, a medical officer stationed in Cochenour, who was an avid patron and promoter of the young Morrisseau. In the same letter to his wife, Selwyn remarked that he was also intrigued by Dr. Weinstein, whom at the time was a highly educated, cultured and worldly man. Selwyn was also impressed by Weinstein’s own talent as an aspiring artist and equally impressed with Weinstein’s personal collection of “primitive”art from around the world and library of art books:

“In the morning we broke camp, picked up our laundry, and drove over to Cochinour to view more paintings of Norval that had been bought by a Dr. Weinstein. I wanted to meet the latter, who had become a sort of patron of Norval’s. A Montreal Jew, who lived outside of the Jewish community there, he studied medicine – and painting in Paris. There he met his wife, a sixth generation Sabra from Israel... What to do about Norval filled most of the hour and a half I had with Weinstein.

Weinstein, who has exhibited in Paris (whether in a well-known salon or on a street corner I don’t know), paints very competent and individual abstracts - slightly reminiscent of Herb Ariss’ work - and has an impressive collection of objets d’art from all over the world, is even more impressed by Norval than I am.
But what to do? Weinstein hopes to get him a surface job at Cochinour Mine (he can’t work underground on account of his T.B. bout), so he can paint in his spare time, and support his family. We agree that it would be fatal to get him down to Toronto for a few months of lionization and exposure to all sorts of pressures. Norval wants an exhibition. Bob Sheppard imagined they would hire him as an assistant at the Museum, and led him to hope this. I promised to use him next summer if he learns to handle a kicker and drive a car - but anything else would be impossible. He has a grade 4 education. That’s our Norval.” (DIAND, ADAS 306065, July 13, 1960, SD).

It is from this initial description of Weinstein and his “impressive collection of “objets d’art” that questions arise as to the amount of influence Weinstein and his collection had on the young Morrisseau. Although no interviews have ever been conducted with Dr. Weinstein regarding his impact on Norval’s stylistic development, an early biography prepared by Selwyn in late 1961 or early 1962, recounts his initial conversation Weinstein and his impressions of the influence of Weinstein’s art collection and library on the young artist. Included in this biography are some thoughts on the source and motivation for Norval’s creativity:

“The Cochenour medical officer, Dr. Weinstein, who had had training as an artist in Paris, and spent his holidays with his Paris-born wife travelling widely and collecting primitive art, took a keen interest in Norval, buying his paintings, and encouraging him to use his native lore as subject matter. I spent half a day with Weinstein discussing Norval’s art; and we agreed that it would do him nothing but harm to go east for formal training. Though he had access to, and was fascinated by, Weinstein’s library of art repros, Norval seems to reflect few influences; one of the most amazing things about him being the way he invents an Ojibway way of visualizing things, without the existence of any pictorial tradition to which he has had any access. He has a real passion for his people’s past, and a sense of mission in passing it on in pictoral form. He depends largely on dreams for his ideas; and in this is firmly rooted in the dream-centred religion of his people.” (DIAND, ADAS 306065, 1961-62,SD) .

Although the biography clearly stated that Norval was “fascinated” with Weinstein’s impressive collection, it appears from the biography that Norval incorporated very few elements and had clearly formulated, rather than emulated, his distinctive style of painting that would later become regarded as the Woodland School of painting.

In an article by Dewdney in Canadian Art in January 1963, Selwyn further notes that:

“At the goldmine in Cochenour where he (Morrisseau) 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 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 birch-bark. These owed nothing to any other art form. This was an artist who relied solely on his inner vision.” (Dewdney, Norval Morrisseau, Canadian Art, p. 33-34. 1963).

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