Indigenous Group of Seven artist Norval Morrisseau has been monumental in creating space for Indigenous art to grow and thrive. Also known as the “Picasso of the North,” his natural talent and powerful connection to culture and land evolved his artistic abilities into the iconic style of what we know today.
Unquestionably, all of the Indigenous Group of Seven artists have created space and belonging for Indigenous culture in the art world. However, Norval Morrisseau has a special place in Superior Country’s heart as this incredible region is one he called home. So, in honour of him, here is a short biography of Norval’s life, art journey, and his impact.
Born John Baptist Norman Henry Morrisseau in Fort William, now known as Thunder Bay, as a child, he spent much of his time growing up in Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, also known as Sand Point First Nation near Beardmore.
Morrisseau spent much time on the land as a child, learning traditions from his grandfather, such as fishing and trapping. While on the land, he also explored and expanded on his artistic gifts. For example, he would draw pictures on the wet sand of the beaches he encountered.
Then, one day, he discovered the pictographs drawn by his ancestors on the Ochre rocks. He was so inspired by them, these 100-year-old drawings have been the spark for his influential style that we all know and admire today.
Morrisseau’s very distinct style of bold and vibrant colours depicts traditional Anishinaabe stories, legends, and spiritual themes, proudly representing his deep connection to Indigenous heritage and traditions.
His famous style combined traditional iconography with contemporary artistic techniques. The thick and bold black lines of the people and animals in his paintings were x-ray views of them. In doing this, the composition of thick lines and bold colours created a visual language that bridged the gap between the past and present, acknowledging his ancestors and creating space for the presence of Indigenous culture in the future.
In Morrisseau’s early paintings, the colour palette used mostly neutral tones along with a simple graphic narrative to the artwork. From this, he eventually evolved into the bold colour palette and thick black lines we know today.
After his career was established in 1962, when he had his first solo exhibition at the Pollack Gallery, he received much recognition and acclaim for his contributions to Indigenous arts and culture.
Norval’s art celebrated and embraced the rich, vibrant, and beautiful depth of Indigenous culture and tradition. He challenged the dominant art world by showcasing the power of Indigenous narratives, voice, and presence.
Norval’s advocacy for Indigenous rights and cultural preservation leaves a lasting impact on not only the belonging of Indigenous people in the art world, but also Canadian popular culture as a whole.
Norval Morrisseau is an iconic figure in the art world for more reasons than one. Norval and the members of the Indigenous Group of Seven continue to create spaces for Indigenous voices and perspectives to be shown with pride and encouragement.
If you would like to learn more about Norval and want to celebrate his incredible artwork and the impact he’s made, visit the Norval Morrisseau monument located at the Nipigon Bridge View Lookout. And, to see an authentic Morrisseau painting with your own eyes, check out the Nipigon Public Library where they have one on display!