The descriptions are spectacular and too generous, perhaps. Norval Morrisseau was "the Picasso of the North," according to some, and "the most important painter Canada has ever produced," to quote his Toronto art dealer.
Such descriptions, of course, ignore the likes of Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven and place Mr. Morrisseau in a league with the most innovative artist of the 20th century. The hyperbole is forgivable. They are part of the legend - the story of a true primitive who emerged from the Northern Ontario wilderness to awe the sophisticates in the major art centres of the world. Indeed, Mr. Morrisseau remains the only native artist ever to have had a solo exhibition (for three months, starting in February, 2006) in the 127-year history of the National Gallery of Canada.
Art dealer Jack Pollock, one of the many who claimed to have discovered Mr. Morrisseau, was also part of the legend but had a better grasp on his contribution. "He invented a visual vocabulary that never existed before him," Mr. Pollock said before his death in 1992. "He gave the demi-gods of his people an image."
Mr. Morrisseau could properly lay claim to being the creator and spiritual leader of the Woodland Indian art movement, not only in Canada but in the northeast United States. He developed his style independent of the influence of any other artist and was the first to depict Ojibwa legends and history for the non-native world.
He broke the taboos of his people by revealing sacred stories, but believed it was his mission to put his heritage before the modern world so it could be kept alive. He was "a living bridge to the past," said Donald Robinson of Toronto's Kinsman Robinson Galleries, his major dealer for more than 15 years.
Three generations of native artists have followed in his footsteps, producing variations of the Morrisseau style using heavy black outlines to enclose colourful, flat shapes. Many of these artists have become wealthy in the process but such success was denied Mr. Morrisseau, who never quite escaped the poverty into which he was born.
"To this day, I don't know how we made a living," he wrote in an article published in The Globe and Mail in 1979. "You see, that sense of real necessity is not a thing that most people in white society know anything about." He was raised by his grandfather who was "the most influential person in the whole of my life and also a good provider. We always had moose meat in the house. Also oranges, but no bananas."
Born near Thunder Bay to a family living on the Ojibwa Sand Point Reserve on Lake Nipigon, he was baptized Jean-Baptiste Norman Henry Morrisseau. The oldest of five sons, he went to school for six years, but only finished Grade 2. "You see, the first year you get there, they put you in kindergarten," he once wrote. "The next year you come back and they put you in kindergarten again. Next thing you know, you are in Grade 1. Then, the following year, you start Grade 1 all over again. Maybe you stay in Grade 1 three or four years."
He was brought up by both his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a shaman who schooled him in the traditional ways of his culture while his grandmother, a Catholic, made it her business that he was familiar with Christian beliefs. By all accounts, it was the conflict between the two cultures that influenced his outlook and what would later become his art.
Over the years, legends have developed around Mr. Morrisseau. According to one story, he became perilously ill at 19. A visit to the doctor did nothing and a medicine woman was summoned. A renaming ceremony was performed (Anishnaabe tradition holds that a giving powerful name to someone near death can rally strength and save a life). He was renamed Copper Thunderbird, and recovered. Later, he would use it to sign his paintings.
Somewhere along the way, he developed a fondness for alcohol. When Mr. Pollock first met him in the summer of 1962, he was drunk. The artist demanded that Mr. Pollock look at his work. Mr. Pollock was impressed and was interested in mounting an exhibit, but Mr. Morrisseau wanted to sell his works on the spot for $5 each. Mr. Pollock talked him out of it and a subsequent showing at the Pollock Gallery sold out within 24 hours, netting the artist $3,000. Time magazine declared that "few exhibits in Canadian history have touched off a greater immediate stir than Morrisseau's" and predicted that he would launch "a vogue as chic as that of the Cape Dorset Eskimo's prints."