The life, work and legacy of Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau
The life, work and legacy of Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau - a.k.a.Copper Thunderbird - is being celebrated with today’s Google Canada Doodle. The Doodle was conceived and illustrated by Anishinaabe artists Blake Angeconeb and Danielle H. Morrison, both from Lake of the Woods, Ontario - a place best known as Kenora and stronghold of the Treaty 3 Anishinaabe Nation. The artwork featured in the Doodle exudes Morrisseau’s unmistakable style - a myriad of vibrant colours, an ode to his thunderbird nickname, a portrait of Norval, and traditional Anishinaabe florals throughout. To help us understand the legend behind Norval Morrisseau, we sat down for a Q&A with Blake and Danielle for a conversation about Norval’s spirit and impact.
The artists behind the Doodle: Blake Angeconeb & Danielle H. Morrison
Q: When and how did your life story intersect with that of Norval Morrisseau?
Danielle: Growing up, there was a large picture book of Norval’s paintings always on our bookshelf. I was raised in Kenora, Ontario, where I learned from stories that my father told that Norval spent periods of his life - which weren’t always happy. I came to understand Norval as one of the many Anishinaabeg around Lake of the Woods who lived troubled lives as a result of trauma from the Indian Residential School system. It amazed me that he overcame so much adversity to create such beauty in art. I also believed him to be a relative of mine, as our families shared the same last name - my grandfather was a Morrisseau before he attended Cecelia Jeffrey Residential School, where they changed it to Morrison. When I reached my senior year of high school, I decided to pursue Fine Arts in university. I spent those years studying much of Norval’s work. I felt close to him for much of my formative years as a young adult.
Blake: I started painting in 2013. At the time I was painting portraits of my favourite musicians and icons. I remember first truly discovering Norvals work shortly after that. I was instantly drawn into his work and fell in love with it. I would spend my lunch breaks at the local library reading every book written about him. His art has greatly influenced my life as I paint in the woodland style as well. I wouldn’t be who I am without Norval.
Q: Can you tell us more about the artistic vision and interpretation of this Doodle? In what ways does it pay homage to Norval Morrisseau and his roots?
Blake: This doodle is done in the woodlands school of art, which Norval was the master of. He brought this art form into the light. In the doodle, we have the first G in a woodland snake followed by two birds for the O's. The second G is the outline of the face for Norval. The L and E are in his shamanic headdress. This is accompanied by traditional Anishinaabe florals throughout. There needed to be lots of layers of colours in the piece to truly be representative of Norval’s style. We worked on various previous concepts but this one felt right to us as Norval was very wild and abstract as a person and artist.
Danielle: Norval was very much inspired by our Anishinaabe culture and the surroundings of Lake of the Woods. A similar colour palette, references to natural life, and the spirit of ceremony are all present in this doodle. I have always loved Norval’s florals and their organic feel. It made sense to encompass the doodle in Anishinaabe florals reminiscent of his style. It gives the artwork life.
Q: How do you think Norval helped shape and influence culture and the art world?
Danielle: As a scholar of Fine Arts, I can confidently say that Norval’s influence is far-reaching and made a great impact on the world of art. On the other hand, I didn’t necessarily learn of this while attending university, given that much of my education was Western-focused and rarely covered Indigenous artists. I learned this through life experience and witnessing the space he created for other Indigenous artists to succeed. So many Indigenous artists today, myself included, are inspired by Norval’s legacy and his tenacity to create something that the art world had never seen before. He teaches us to be proud of Anishinaabe people, to live beyond stereotypes, and to create without limitations.
who is norval morrisseau
Why do you think he’s considered the Picasso of the North?
Danielle: Picasso broke tradition and revolutionized art. In a lot of ways, Norval did the same with art and Anishinaabe culture. He was highly criticized by our own community for sharing so much of what was considered ceremonial and only accessible by people who practiced those teachings. The subject matter of his art - whether it was cultural references or about sexuality - were considered very taboo. Even today, there are many who are not so accepting of the mixing of contemporary concepts or sacred teachings represented in the Woodlands school of art. It did not matter to Norval. He persevered with his ideas and creativity, and left an incredible imprint on the history of art.
Q: What do you wish people would know about Norval Morrisseau and how can we honour his legacy?
Blake: I wish everyone would acknowledge the beauty he brought into this world. His art channeled our culture and stories, which were told with his drawings and paintings. His work has helped tell our stories and will continue to do so, as his art is always going to be here. He used his gift to better the world and shared it with everyone. I truly believe his art has a higher purpose and is meant to help everyone heal.
Danielle: It’s important for all to understand that Norval’s art was informed by Anishinaabe teachings of interconnectivity - we are all related, we are all energetic beings. Norval held the Anishinaabe worldview that is accepting of all sexualities, genders, races, and religions. People should know that Norval himself was bisexual. It is fitting that this doodle is being launched during June, which is both Pride and National Indigenous History month in Canada. In a world where there is so much violence driven by hatred and divide, we could all stand to gain more peace and mutual understanding by practicing and living the spirit of Norval’s legacy and teachings.
Q: What can we all do to better support indigenous artists here in Canada?
Danielle: Society needs to recognize Indigenous artists as individuals with their own unique artistic visions that are beyond the romanticized idea of what “Indigenous art” should be. Indigenous artists cannot be expected to represent all Indigenous people. To support Indigenous artists is to also support artistic concepts that are beyond the stereotypes and basic cultural motifs of eagle feathers and medicine wheels. Indigenous artists practice in all mediums - beadwork, carving, sewing, painting, song, and dance. Every medium is deserving of proper compensation. Indigenous artists have spent hours, years, decades, honing their craft - an act of cultural reclamation and revitalization in and of itself. The best way to support Indigenous artists is to buy Indigenous art. Lift Indigenous artists up by supporting their livelihood so they can inspire the next generation of Indigenous artists to carry on the legacy.
Learn more about Norval Morrisseau through the Estate of Norval Morrisseau: https://officialmorrisseau.com/