Norval Morrisseau’s painting of Shaman and Disciples, 1979

Shaman-artist Norval Morrisseau teaching his students

Norval Morrisseau (1931/33-)
1979
1979.34.7
© McMichael Canadian Art Collection. All Rights Reserved.


"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." 1

"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." 1

1 Lister Sinclair and Jack Pollock, The Art of Norval Morrisseau (Toronto: Methuen, 1979) 7.


© 1979, Methuen. All Rights Reserved.

Norval Morrisseau explains that in Shaman and Disciples, he is the Shaman (with beard); the young man on his left is his middle son Brian; the man on his right is his long time friend Shingoose (Curtis Johnnie), musician and actor. The Shaman is teaching his Chelas (students or disciples) from the astral plane (a reference from Theosophy to a plane or level just beyond normal human perception), near the City of Light. Morrisseau believes that he exists on the astral plane spiritually most of the time.

Morrisseau’ symbolism and personal imagery reflect not only his spiritual existence and religious beliefs but also represent traditional legends and cultural values of his people, the Ojibway (also spelled Ojibwe and Ojibwa). His images are composed of colourful stylized forms delineated and separated by strong fluid black outlines which have become characteristic of the Woodland School of Art, an artistic style which was developed by Morrisseau.

Norval Morrisseau explains that in Shaman and Disciples, he is the Shaman (with beard); the young man on his left is his middle son Brian; the man on his right is his long time friend Shingoose (Curtis Johnnie), musician and actor. The Shaman is teaching his Chelas (students or disciples) from the astral plane (a reference from Theosophy to a plane or level just beyond normal human perception), near the City of Light. Morrisseau believes that he exists on the astral plane spiritually most of the time.

Morrisseau’ symbolism and personal imagery reflect not only his spiritual existence and religious beliefs but also represent traditional legends and cultural values of his people, the Ojibway (also spelled Ojibwe and Ojibwa). His images are composed of colourful stylized forms delineated and separated by strong fluid black outlines which have become characteristic of the Woodland School of Art, an artistic style which was developed by Morrisseau.


© 2006, McMichael Canadian Art Collection. All Rights Reserved.

Norval Morrisseau

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

Photo by Ian Samson

© McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives. All Rights Reserved.


Norval Morrisseau was born sometime between 1931 and 1933 and was raised by his maternal grandparents in Sand Point Reserve near Thunder Bay, Ontario.1 It was through his grandfather that Morrisseau learned about the legacy of the Ojibway beliefs and was trained in the ways of a shaman [spiritual leader]. [He] was [also] exposed to Christianity at an early age through his Catholic grandmother. In the 1970s he became interested in the spiritual philosophy of Eckankar and its theories of astral visions and soul travel. All of these experiences influenced his artistic development.

Morrisseau left school at an early age, and as a young person had little exposure to the visual arts (he is a self-taught artist). Instead, he leaned toward the teachings of his elders, the rock paintings he studied in his youth, and the tools of shamanism.

Morrisseau is known as Copper Thunderbird – a name he received as a young man. In Ojibway culture, the thunderbird acts as a go-between; in combination with “copper,” the name suggests that Morrisseau has the ability to unite opposing powers of underwater/underearth and above sky. Copper Thunderbird Read More

Norval Morrisseau was born sometime between 1931 and 1933 and was raised by his maternal grandparents in Sand Point Reserve near Thunder Bay, Ontario.1 It was through his grandfather that Morrisseau learned about the legacy of the Ojibway beliefs and was trained in the ways of a shaman [spiritual leader]. [He] was [also] exposed to Christianity at an early age through his Catholic grandmother. In the 1970s he became interested in the spiritual philosophy of Eckankar and its theories of astral visions and soul travel. All of these experiences influenced his artistic development.

Morrisseau left school at an early age, and as a young person had little exposure to the visual arts (he is a self-taught artist). Instead, he leaned toward the teachings of his elders, the rock paintings he studied in his youth, and the tools of shamanism.

Morrisseau is known as Copper Thunderbird – a name he received as a young man. In Ojibway culture, the thunderbird acts as a go-between; in combination with “copper,” the name suggests that Morrisseau has the ability to unite opposing powers of underwater/underearth and above sky. Copper Thunderbird signs his paintings with this name represented by syllabics.2

Founder of the Woodland School of Art, Morrisseau developed an artistic style known for its x-ray impressions, rich and vibrant colours, and flat sinuous forms separated by thick black lines. His art influenced the work of other well-known First Nations artists such as Daphne Odjig and Carl Ray who assimilated his iconography and pictographic style in their own work. Morrisseau’s themes incorporate the legends and stories of the Ojibway people and as such offer glimpses into Ojibway culture.

In the 1960s Morrisseau’s work received recognition with the support of Toronto gallery owner Jack Pollock. Following his artistic success he was presented with the Order of Canada and honoured by the Assembly of First Nations.

1Due to conflicting records, Morrisseau's birth year ranges from 1931 to 1933. The exact date is unknown. His place of birth also remains unclear.
2The Art of Norval Morrisseau, The Writings of Basil H. Johnston (Calgary; The Glenbow Museum, 1999) 1.


© 1999, The Glenbow Museum. All Rights Reserved.

Toronto gallery owner Jack Pollock discusses the uniqueness of Norval Morrisseau’s work. From: "The Paradox of Norval Morrisseau", 1974

Morrisseau's paintings over the years have offered a voyage of discovery for many people including gallery owner, Jack Pollock. "Jack, you have been given credit as the discoverer of Norval Morrisseau. What did you see in Norval that you didn't see in other Canadian artists?" "I saw a sense of purpose, a direction, and an inner strength. Looking at it from a painting point of view, I found an incredible sense of design, a power of imagery, and a uniqueness. You know, there is a sense of the unique. Obviously, he is one of the few people who have interpreted the legends and myths. But, his images of those demigods, the animal world, the Merman - things of this type were unique to himself, I felt. I felt that I had not seen this before."

National Film Board of Canada

© 1974, Courtesy National Film Board of Canada. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

Norval Morrisseau Shaman and Disciples Learning Object is designed for students and educators to meet the following objectives:

  • Learn about the artist and his contribution to Canadian art;
  • Explore themes in Canadian history and cultural heritage;
  • Establish links between art and cultural identity;
  • Learn about a type of Canadian art – First Nations art, and demonstrate knowledge in the art of other cultures, nations, and groups;
  • Identify, research, and describe visual characteristics and themes found in Canadian and other cultures’ art;
  • Demonstrate an understanding that the function of art may vary from culture to culture;
  • Discuss and analyze a work of art using principles of design and other artistic terminology, and classify a work of art by period, style, and subject matter;
  • Use appropriate art vocabulary related to materials, processes, and technologies;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of materials, basic skills, and concepts in painting; and
  • Identify the skills required in various visual arts and art-related careers.

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