Artist Carries Tribe’s Traditions Forward

Every artist depicts nature in a different way. In one artist’s world, nature is a place where people, animals and plant life are intertwined in vibrant color. Karen Kelly visited this new exhibit:


Every artist depicts nature in a different way. In one artist’s world, nature is a place where people, animals and plant life are intertwined in vibrant color. Reporter Karen Kelly visited this new exhibit.

Six and seven year olds are pointing and chattering in front of a mural bursting with plant and animal life. One of them, Pierre Rousseau, describes his favorite parts of the painting.

“People, strawberries, some leaves, and fish, and kind of mister who has a bird on his head.”

The kids are at an exhibit of Norval Morrisseau’s work at the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, Canada. Usually, you hear a lot of shushing when kids are in an art gallery.
Here, you can almost feel the energy between the kids and the paintings.

In one corner, Sadok Benmoussa and Amir Shallal are trying to figure out a mural that tells the story of creation.

“And what’s that big stuff? A flower? That big stuff… Oh, the big stuff, bears? A bear? A bear.”

Norval Morrisseau grew up on an Ojibway reservation on the north shore of Lake Superior, and that environment fills his paintings; the water, the animals, trees, berries.
But most important are the people, his own people interacting with that nature.

Gabe Vadas lived with Morrisseau for many years, and now that the artist has Parkinson’s disease, Vadas is his spokesman and guardian. He says when Morrisseau was growing up in the 50’s, his tribe began rejecting many of its traditions, and it’s connection to the natural world, so Morrisseau used his paintings to tell the stories he learned from his grandfather who was a shaman.

“And I think Norval just felt desperation as a young person to regain the identity that had been passed down to him. And of course Grandpa is only telling him, so there’s a desperation that ‘wait a minute, I’m the only one who’s learning these things and learning these legends.'”

One of these legends shows a man who changes into a thunderbird. It’s one of Morrisseau’s most famous works and it shows this transformation over six canvases. It begins with a man who has a bird perched on his head, as well as one in each arm. Slowly, his eyes get larger, his mouth forms a beak and his arms become wings. This is Morrisseau’s later style, and it resembles stained glass. He uses thick black lines to create an intricate design of colors and shapes.

Greg Hill curated the Morrisseau show for Canada’s national gallery. It’s now on display at the McMichael Gallery north of Toronto and it will be in New York City in January. Hill says the artist’s later works contain a message for everyone, not just members of his own community.

“He’s saying that we all exist here on mother earth and we need to respect that, those interrelationships.”

That message is something that visitor Yvette Debain says she could see in Morrisseau’s work.

“Very spiritual. That’s why it touches me because I believe also that we’re all part of a creation, and the spirit, you can say God, is in all the creation. It’s not separate.”

Morrisseau’s guardian, Gabe Vadas, says that when the artist returned to his hometown many years later, he was surprised to find many people who had gone back to the native traditions, and many told him that his paintings had inspired them to do so. Now, he hopes that with this major exhibit, more folks will be touched by his message.

For the Environment Report, I’m Karen Kelly.

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