Visual Stories

Experimenting with this language

To characterize Morrisseau’s artistic style as just line and divided circles ignores the many ways the artist experimented to tell visual stories. Morrisseau tried new materials and new techniques to innovate his artistic language. Experimenting with scale and colour pushed his visual stories in new directions.

Norval Morrisseau, The Swan, 1983.

A visual experiment using oil sticks, Morrisseau takes full advantage of the medium to express the spiritual aura of this swan. While visiting French artist Yves Vial’s BC studio in 1983, Morrisseau watched him work using oil sticks and asked if he could try. This swan was the result.

Morrisseau's experimentation is evident in this 1979 work that he co-created with artist Ritchie Sinclair or Stardreamer. This work explores abstracted ideas about spirituality and is one of several they created together. This work was made as a gift and signed by both artists.

Norval Morrisseau with Ritchie Sinclair, Sounding, 1979.

Morrisseau uses curling lines leaving mouths in some of his paintings, referred to as lines of communication. They are meant to represent more than just ordinary talking, they represent prophecy and symbolize a shaman’s powerful speech. This painting was done after Morrisseau joined Eckankar.

Norval Morrisseau, In the Spirit of Eck We are all Soul’s Brothers, 1978.

Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (Shaman Riding Thunderbird), 1973.

While Morrisseau was in jail in Kenora, Ontario he drew a series of drawings. This work is a version of the Shaman Rider he painted the year before. Morrisseau used drawings like these to develop his themes and compositions before committing to a painting. Pencil drawings like these allow us to get a better sense of his use of line and his overall process.

As in the painting, the head of the Thunderbird has jagged teeth and feathers drawn to express the motion of a shaman being transported to another realm.

Sacred Bears over 30 year span

This painting of two sacred bears by Morrisseau on moosehide is another example of how the artist was experimenting not only with his visual language, which is evident here, but also in his use of materials. During 1961 and 1962, Morrisseau wrote several letters to his friend and mentor Selwyn Dewdney discussing his decision to paint on hide when birchbark wasn’t available.

Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (White Bears), 1962.

Norval Morrisseau, Sacred Medicine Bear, 1974.

This painting of a sacred bear connects to a story that Morrisseau’s grandfather Moses Potan Nanakonagos shared with him about his ancestor. The sacred bear is important to Morrisseau as it appeared during his vision quest.

Morrisseau does not use the colour white as often as other colours. It is a potent, sacred colour and denotes spirituality. This sacred medicine bear takes the form of an albino animal (also revered spiritually). This bear has a medicine bag hanging from its neck to further convey the spiritual nature of the being. This painting was included in the 1979 book, The Art of Norval Morrisseau.

Morrisseau paints a giant, sacred bear late in his career in white, recalling the Sacred Medicine Bear from 1974. Living on the west coast in his senior years, Morrisseau places the monumental white bear nestled between the mountains, painted in the two shades of sacred colours gifted to him as a young man.

A family, situated below the bear and mountains, within a glowing red tent, surrounded by ancestral figures, celebrates the concept of visual storytelling so important to his artistic practice.

Norval Morrisseau, Grandfather Tells of Giant Bear, 1992.

Norval Morrisseau, Impressionist Thunderbirds, 1975.

Morrisseau experimented with new methods of painting, playing with brushstroke and colour. Impressionist Thunderbirds is an excellent example of Morrisseau's experimentation, here commenting on nineteenth-century Impressionism's art language.

Using brushstrokes of colour for the background of this small work, he then adds a grouping of Thunderbirds, creating an artwork that demonstrates his awareness of artistic conventions. Morrisseau painted this work during a period of recovery from his battle with alcoholism at the Alcare Detoxification Centre in Ste. Rose du Lac in Manitoba in 1975.

While healing at the treatment centre, Morrisseau played with his visual vocabulary, creating new and exciting works. Friend, and now Morrisseau Estate Director, Cory Dingle shares:

Norval told me the story of this work. He said when he went into the AlCare Detoxification Centre in Ste. Rose du Lac, MB, they had a nice Library and for the first time he had access to sober thought and art books from around the world… He remembered picking up a book about impressionistic painting and he thought he would give it a try. To my knowledge he took two 32 x 20 inch mat boards, and he cut one in half. He made three paintings in an impressionistic Style.

Correspondence with Cory Dingle, February 2024.

Norval Morrisseau, Untitled Impressionistic Bird, 1975.

Norval Morrisseau, Soul Fish, 1970.

Early on, Morrisseau used mostly tempera paints or gouache on birchbark or various kinds of paper and even hide. He also experimented with oil paints for a short time.

One sunny day we were quietly all working away and Norval Morrisseau spoke up and said to me, ‘Do you know why I don't paint in oil? That's because they stink.’ He said he would do a few paintings and they took a long time to dry and his little house would fill with noxious fumes. He explained how his house had bad heat and not really any insulation in winter, so the oils almost never dried. He mentioned how very happy he was when he discovered acrylics.

Correspondence with Cory Dingle, February 2024.

Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (Birchbark Hammered), 1974

This experimental work on wiigwaas or birchbark shows Morrisseau hammering a design of two fish and the sun by punching holes into a sheet of birchbark.

Norval Morrisseau, Man Warding Off Psychic Powers, 1978.

Painted in acrylic on canvas and sold through the Pollock Gallery in the late 1970s, this unusual painting that mimics birchbark, in colour, captures a psychic battle between a shaman (supported by a sacred bear) and a transformational fish figure. His use of oversized heads and eyes link this work to his spiritual interest in Eckankar. Still, Morrisseau accentuates the hearts in the bear, shaman, and fish figure, continuing his practice of stressing the significance of the heart in his visual stories. In this work, the artist uses red as an energy current to connect all beings. Note, too, that one of the bear’s legs includes a grimacing snake head.

Norval Morrisseau, Self-Portrait, c. 1981.

Morrisseau often drew and painted self-representations. This pencil drawing from c. 1982 is representative of the different forms his visual language took when he wasn’t using paint. In this drawing, Morrisseau adds detailed hatching marks on all three bird figures and more intricacies in rendering the overall image. Still, the work continues to celebrate kinship relations, through the three birds surrounding his head.

By 1977, Morrisseau had developed his own artistic language that he could command to tell a wide range of visual stories.

Morrisseau’s six-panel masterpiece from 1977 visually tells the story of his own transformation from a shaman apprentice to Copper Thunderbird, a shaman artist. It is a narrative that is both personal and sacred. Morrisseau called this his best work yet. In an interview with Toronto Star art critic Gary Dault, Morrisseau stated, "I've wanted to paint this picture for fifteen years but I couldn't do it in those days. This is the ultimate picture for me and I'm sharing it. Sharing is wonderful."
The six panels pulsate with energy and colour. Dault agreed, stating, “To enjoy the overwhelming force of the work, one has to be there.” To him, this was the "best work of his [Morrisseau's] career."

 G. M. Dault, "Painting Gives Canadians a Masterpiece", Toronto Star, 29 August 1977, p. D5.

Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

    Pollock Fond, Art Gallery of Ontario

    Invitation for exhibition at the Pollock Gallery that included Man Changing into Thunderbird. According to Richard Baker, Morrisseau's lawyer in the 1970s, the artist completed the final two panels of this significant work just before the exhibition opened and the paint was not yet fully dry during the vernissage. (Conversation with R. Baker, 2022)

    This painting visually expresses Morrisseau’s changing ideas about spirituality in a work that includes both his grandfather, Moses Potan Nanakonagos on the left and his self-representation on the right panel. Using two separate panels and colour, these two panels signal his shifting understandings of shamanism after embracing Eckankar teachings.

    Experimenting with background treatments, the artist applies washes of colour to the canvas before painting his visual stories. The result is a two-panel visual story that is interconnected through form and colour about the new and shifting ideas that had taken hold of Morrisseau. One of the ways Morrisseau articulates his changing views is to use two separate panels. This way, he honours his grandfather's teachings but also draws a distinction to his own evolving ideas about spirituality that move away from the interpretion of Anishinaabe knowledge as he adds layers of new ideas into his ways of understanding the world. His interest in Eckankar, then, is translated to the viewer through his already understood visual storytelling vocabulary. The addition of HU, in the split blue spiritual circle in the top left corner of the right panel of this painting, refers to the mantra of Eckists. The strong diagonal of interconnected beings actively enter this painted panel as a way to further convey that his teachings are no longer all grounded in relational interconnections.

    Norval Morrisseau, The Storyteller: The Artist and His Grandfather, 1978.

    Norval Morrisseau, Androgyny, 1983.

    Because of Morrisseau’s embracing of Eckankar teachings, more and more yellow enters his paintings. Here, we find boldly coloured images of animals, humans, and spirit beings living in an interconnected universe, where layers of storytelling, and ways of knowing are part of us all.

    He continues to use line and spiritually significant colours, and interconnections between all living beings. His works are uplifting and seem to vibrate with his use of colour and large scale paintings.



    The house of invention gave me colour. 

    Norval Morrisseau: Return to the House of Invention, 1997, p.14.
    This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by Logan Fiddler, Great-grandson of Norval Morrisseau, 2023.


    In Anishinaabeg tradition, an offering is a gift and a form of protocol. It is a gesture of relationship between people, animals, spirits, and other entities in the universe, given in the interests of creating ties, honoring them, or asking for assistance and direction.

    Doefler, Sinclair, and Stark, Centering Anishinaabeg Studies, p.xv.

    Morrisseau painted this masterwork as a gift to the Canadian people in 1983. The artist contacted Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and explained that he wished to gift the mural to him directly.

    Trudeau did not attend the unveiling and this amazing work hung in the lobby of the Indian and Northern Affairs Secretariat building in Gatineau until the retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery in 2006, when it was rediscovered as the masterpiece it is.

    Many times people tell me that I’ve cured them. But I didn’t do anything. It was the colour of the painting that did it… The healing is more colourful than it ever was.

    Norval Morrisseau: Return to the House of Invention, 1997, p. 15.
    This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by Logan Fiddler, Great-grandson of Norval Morrisseau, 2023.

    Starting in the 1980s, Morrisseau begins to paint larger scale paintings and uses vibrant colours. In his mural-like works such as Observations of the Astral World, the artist creatively integrates all aspects of his spiritual teachings from Anishinaabe cosmology, shamanistic symbolism, and Eckankar teachings together. Using intense colour to convey a sense of balance between two spheres or worlds that express balance, the artist paints a family interconnected with living beings of aki, or land, in the left sphere, surrounded by a copper coloured background. The encircled shaman figures in the right sphere include the sacred bear, fish, and a thunderbird headdress. The two groups are divided by a tree, with the central trunk of this tree of knowledge a black dividing line. Morrisseau includes blocks of yellow in two of his painted orbs, which has connections to Eckist teachings, from which fish, symbols for underwater spirits, swim from one side of the divided composition to the other, signifying the interactions between realms. This monumental work exudes a healing force extended through the artist's use of intense colour.

    Norval Morrisseau, Observations of the Astral World, 1994.

    Norval Morrisseau, Thunderbird and Canoe in Flight, Norval on Scooter, 1997.

    This painting was completed late in Morrisseau’s career and includes a small cameo of himself on a scooter as by this point he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

    Still the artist was including many of the motifs he used throughout his career such as the interconnection between worlds, migration, Thunderbirds, fish, and plants.

    The artist continues to privilege black line and vibrant colours.

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