Family is a concept that reaches beyond the nuclear family to include Mother Earth. Morrisseau paints images of his family, but his paintings of family extend to all living things. Morrisseau often paints Mother Earth and at times places himself in relation to her. 

Morrisseau, Artist as Child: Self representation of Morrisseau as a fetus in Womb (Mother Earth), 1976.

The Ojibway believe the earth to be their mother and that we are children of the earth.

Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1965, p. 15.
This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by Eugene Morrisseau, son of Norval Morrisseau, 2023. 

This self representation by Morrisseau as a fetus in Womb (Mother Earth) was painted in 1976 and expresses his relationship to the universe and his understanding of the world as our mother.

Morrisseau paints himself connected to Mother Earth often during the 1970s.

In this painting, the artist uses both light blue and darker blue to show the spiritual nature of this work. The fetus holds spiritual gifts within his enfolded arms.

Transcript of the note Morrisseau wrote on the back of Spiritual Child (in Womb of Mother Earth) written in graphite:

Artist-Inner Vishion of himself
Where He Project[s] himself
As a spiritual Child or Spiritual Son.
Of the Great Powerful Cosmic Womb.
March 20, 1976
Study of self
In reality.  You say
I have indeed
Advance in thought
High on spiritual
Level than you [were] 3 years ago—
Thank you my Higher Power


    This work from 1973 is a self-representation of the artist within his environment. When it was sold in 1977 in Montreal the title of the work was Wheel of Life. The circular enclosure recalls a work Morrisseau painted of himself within the womb of Mother Earth.

    Norval Morrisseau, The Artist and His Environment or Wheel of Life, 1973.

    Norval Morrisseau, Artist in Union with Mother Earth, 1972.

    In Artist in Union with Mother Earth, the artist creates a circular form of intertwined bodies in coitus. In this way Morrisseau links his body to the fertility of all living things–Mother Earth–in a way that conveys relationality of family ties as all encompassing.

    Curator Greg Hill hung these three works of art next to each other in Morrisseau’s retrospective exhibition to spark visual conversations about land and water as our relations.

    Mother Earth

    In this early representation of Mother Earth from 1966, Morrisseau places this sacred figure in the centre of the composition encompassed by five circular bundles. She wears sacred adornments and her breasts are set off in red and white to communicate the importance of their role in nourishing all living things.

    This painting was created around the time Morrisseau was designing the mural for the exterior wall of the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67.

    Norval Morrisseau, Mother Earth, 1966.

    Indians of Canada Pavilion mural at Expo '67, Montreal. Photo permission from Kinsman Robinson Gallery, Toronto, ON.

    His design presented Mother Earth feeding a bear cub and a young boy from her breasts. The Expo pavilion design was censored by government officials and Morrisseau left the project in protest. Carl Ray (Morrisseau’s assistant on the project) completed a version of the mural that was more acceptable to the Canadian government at the time.

    The Expo 67 Indians of Canada Pavilion mural was destroyed when Expo 67 ended and was dismantled. This photograph shows a dedication to Morrisseau's grandfather, Moses Potan Nanakonagos, added by Ray.


    This version of Mother Earth, painted more than twenty years after the artist started showing his work professionally, illustrates Morrisseau’s changing colour palette. The canvas is split between fields of yellow–a colour that reflects Eckankar teachings–and a light blue, a spiritual colour for Morrisseau. There is a duality represented by the yellow and blue background that shows the connections between our world and spiritual connections to the spiritual realm.

    All living beings are interconnected through black line and vibrant colours.

    Norval Morrisseau, Mother Earth, 1985.

    Norval Morrisseau, Christ Subservant To Mother Earth, 1975.

    Morrisseau presents Christ suckling from the breast of Mother Earth connecting Anishinaabe and Christian belief systems. By painting Mother Earth as circular figure with a breast extended to Christ, a figure encircled in an interconnected orb, Morrisseau expresses his concept of relationality or kinship that encompasses all spiritual and living beings. Painted for an exhibition at the Dominion Gallery in Montreal in 1975, Morrisseau painted several other canvasses with handprints for this show.

      Norval Morrisseau, Androgyny, 1983.

      Androgyny is a celebration of life. Morrisseau painted this large mural to promote the interconnected relations to all living beings and remind Canadians of the need to care for the land and all living beings. In 1983, Morrisseau contacted Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and offered this work as a gift to all Canadians. The work, however, languished in the Indian Affairs lobby for twenty years, with little acknowledgement of this generous offering.

      Morrisseau had a close relationship with his mother’s father, Moses Potan Nanakonagos, who imparted much of his knowledge on the young artist. Many of the stories shared with Morrisseau are described in his book Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway (1965).

      Morrisseau paints his grandfather and other members of his family, including his wife, his children, and his grandchildren, throughout his career.

      My grandfather was the most influential person in the whole of my life. He was a mythman, the shaman.

      Norval Morrisseau, Art of Norval Morrisseau, 1979, p.41.
      This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by Logan Fiddler, great-grandson of Norval Morrisseau, 2023.

      My Grandfather was the first to believe in me.

      Norval Morrisseau, Art of Norval Morrisseau, 1979, p. 46.

      This painting expresses Morrisseau’s changing ideas about spirituality. The left panel shows his grandfather, Moses Potan Nanakonagos, who embodies mino bimaadiziwin, or living a good life. Separated from his grandfather in the right panel is a young Morrisseau, respectfully explaining to his grandfather his ties to all living beings but with new spiritual teachings that enter this panel from the upper right side. These beings are linked to the artist’s outstretched with a line that conceptualizes his acceptance of Eckankar teachings–communicated clearly by including a circular energy bundle with the Eckist mantra HU.

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

      Morrisseau’s grandfather, Moses Potan Nanakonagos, his mother Grace’s father, was a Mide shaman and an important role model who shared teachings and stories with him.

      This drawing, completed late in Morrisseau’s career, continues to use line to communicate intergenerational storytelling.

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

      Norval Morrisseau, Sacred Medicine Bear, 1974.

      This painting of a sacred bear is also a painting about family. Morrisseau uses his visual storytelling language to paint a sacred bear that connects to a story that Morrisseau’s grandfather Moses Potan Nanakonagos shared with him about his ancestor, Little Grouse.

      The sacred bear is important to Morrisseau as it appeared during his vision quest.

      My grandfather on my father’s side was Little Grouse and at the time of his fasting year had a great medicine dream, ‘My son, I will be a guardian to you and give you some special power. Although you will not be a conjurer or a medicine man, still you shall have power to do good. I will give you good luck, but you must respect me in my earthly form and never kill me. Now I will go into your body.’ According to that medicine dream my grandfather believed there was a bear inside his body. He felt its presence at his back, or hip.

      Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 45.

      Morrisseau paints the giant sacred bear late in his career. Living on the west coast, Morrisseau places the white bear nestled in the mountains. A family, situated below the bear and mountains, is involved in ceremony within a tent, surrounded by ancestral figures.

      Norval Morrisseau, Grandfather Tells of Giant Bear, 1992.

      (Clockwise from top left) Harriet, Norval, Eugene, and Victoria Morrisseau photographed in Toronto

      During an exhibition at the Pollock Gallery in October 1963. Morrisseau and his family, including Harriet, Victoria, and baby Eugene, arrived at the gallery and helped activate sales of his work. This photo was taken in 1963 by a Globe and Mail photographer, but it did not appear in the paper until January 27, 1965 in connection with a story about Morrisseau's art written by the Globe and Mail art critic Kay Kritzwiser. In an effort to explain the artist, she provides a demeaning description of him: "Morrisseau's power to link the world of his ancestors with the conflicting modern world puzzles the young painter."

      Norval Morrisseau, Artist's Wife and Daughter, 1975.

      Morrisseau painted this portrait of his wife Harriet with their young daughter as a companion work to a self-portrait as shaman.

      Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter, Victoria), 1965.

      Norval and Harriet's first born, their daughter Victoria, was the subject of several paintings and drawings by Morrisseau.

      Norval Morrisseau, Artist's Three Sons, 1975.

      Norval Morrisseau, Pikangikum Woman, c. 1972.

      City people were fascinated by the rich, colourful designs worn by Pikangikum women during the 1940s and 1950s. The women designed their clothing from the traditional knowledge passed on from their ancestors.

      Fred Suggashie, member of Pikangikum First Nation and a member of the Sturgeon Clan, is also an artist.

      Motherhood and family are subjects that Morrisseau paints often. Pikangikum First Nation is located in the far west corner of northwestern Ontario, about 100 km north of Red Lake, ON and the artist painted several versions of his Pikangikum Woman.

      Excerpt from Copper Thunderbird: The Art of Norval Morrisseau, 2012, p. 58.

      Morrisseau often celebrated the significance of motherhood in his art. This work, painted in the 1990s, expresses the powerful bonds that resonate through all humanity and beyond.

      Norval Morrisseau, In Honor of Native Motherhood, 1990.

      Norval Morrisseau, Shaman and Family, 1981.

      Morrisseau often painted images capturing his family as this richly coloured work from 1980 demonstrates.

        Norval Morrisseau, Human Mother and Bear Man Offspring, c. 1970.

        Morrisseau often painted and drew a mother nursing a bear child and a human child. His original design for a mural chosen for one of the exterior walls of the Indians of Canada Pavilion for Expo 67 in Montreal, QC included an image similar to this one. The Expo 67 image, however, was censored by government officials, and in the end Cree artist Carl Ray completed the amended pavilion mural, changing the original design by turning the boy and bear cub away from their mother’s breasts. In its final conception, the dedication, “In Honour To My Grandfather Potan Nanakonagos And To Our Ancestors”, signed with Morrisseau’s syllabic signature Copper Thunderbird, was maintained to acknowledge the importance of intergenerational stories in Morrisseau’s art.


        Saul Williams discusses the bond that is created between the land, the mother, and the child when everything to feed and clothe the child came from the land.

        ... There was no store, there was no place to buy formula, there was no place to buy Pampers. Everything came from the land and that’s what’s happening here. The mother is raising her child with her breast… The child becomes stronger because of natural milk.

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