Visual Stories

Elements of a Visual Language

Norval Morrisseau, Grandfather Sharing Stories with All Living Beings, 1989.

In this drawing, completed late in Morrisseau’s career, the artist continues to foreground the importance of intergenerational storytelling as he visually expresses how kin or relations gather to listen to aadizookaang (stories of the Anishinaabe oral tradition) that transmit knowledge.

Norval Morrisseau, Unfinished Portrait, 1972.

This unfinished painting by Morrisseau from 1972 lets us see and better understand his painting technique. Morrisseau begins this and other works by blocking in colours and then adding the black lines to interconnect the figures. Morrisseau uses more intense and pure colours of acrylic paint by the 1970s, though he does not often paint on canvas until later in this decade. The original owner of this painting was a bush pilot from Kenora, ON, who knew Morrisseau and owned a restaurant in Red Lake in the late 1960s. He rescued the work from the garbage and had it framed when one of his restaurant patrons admitted she'd thrown the work away.

Lines, divided circles and interconnections communicate energy and express living relationships that activate his visual stories. For Morrisseau, colour adds movement and complexity to his artwork.

In this painting created in 1972, Morrisseau interconnects all elements of the work with line and divided circles. His use of line as an interconnected element becomes key to his visual language and helps to communicate how spirit power is constantly in flow among all living beings within the multi-layered world he perceived and expresses in his body of art.

Morrisseau expresses real movement in this painting through his use of line. During this period of his arts practice, Morrisseau often painted works using earth tone or natural colours, as he does in this painting.

Norval Morrisseau, Shaman Rider, 1972.

Visualizing Morrisseau’s Artistic Vocabulary:

  • Black Line
  • Split circles
  • Colour
  • Composition
  • Spiritual energy
  • Visual Stories

Norval Morrisseau, Water Spirit, 1972.

Norval Morrisseau, The Gift, 1975.

The Gift was on display at the Magicien de la Terre exhibition and is a significant work of visual storytelling. This work exerts a powerful political and spiritual commentary. On the left side of the painting is a missionary connected to a Shaman through their handshake. A transmission of dots can be understood as smallpox, as the spread of this disease occurred with contact. Morrisseau paints the young person standing behind the Shaman figure as being drawn to the power of the missionary’s medicine pouch, painted with a cross and emitting lines of power, while the Shaman holds him back.

Using the colours green and red, Morrisseau also draws attention to the different ways of understanding represented by these spiritual figures. The Shaman’s heart is emphasized as the central focal point in green and red. For the missionary, it is the brain, or rationality, where decisions are made that stand out in green and red.

Light Blue and Dark Blue

Colours gifted to Morrisseau in a medicine dream:

Here I give you two colours, one dark blue to represent night, one light blue to represent day… The dream left a strong impression on me.

Legends of My People, 1965 p. 69.
This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by Logan Fiddler, Great-grandson of Norval Morrisseau, 2023.

Morrisseau uses intense colour to honour Kateri Tekakwitha, or Lily of the Mohawk, in this important work. Morrisseau painted Kateri at least three times in his career and she was an important figure who was accorded sainthood by Pope John Paul II in 1980. He includes both sacred shades of light blue and darker blue and uses a variety of colours to express her halo and spiritual aura.

Norval Morrisseau, Lily of the Mohawks, 1974.

Morrisseau's exhibition at Ontario Place in Toronto, ON in 1984.

Description by Norval of what his art means through an Eckankar astral plane lens to explain how colour for him does the spiritual work in his paintings.

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