Norval Morrisseau was born sometime between 1931 and 1933 and was raised by his maternal grandparents in Sand Point Reserve near Thunder Bay, Ontario.1 It was through his grandfather that Morrisseau learned about the legacy of the Ojibway beliefs and was trained in the ways of a shaman [spiritual leader]. [He] was [also] exposed to Christianity at an early age through his Catholic grandmother. In the 1970s he became interested in the spiritual philosophy of Eckankar and its theories of astral visions and soul travel. All of these experiences influenced his artistic development.

Morrisseau left school at an early age, and as a young person had little exposure to the visual arts (he is a self-taught artist). Instead, he leaned toward the teachings of his elders, the rock paintings he studied in his youth, and the tools of shamanism.

Morrisseau is known as Copper Thunderbird – a name he received as a young man. In Ojibway culture, the thunderbird acts as a go-between; in combination with “copper,” the name suggests that Morrisseau has the ability to unite opposing powers of underwater/underearth and above sky. Copper Thunderbird signs his paintings with this name represented by syllabics.2

Founder of the Woodland School of Art, Morrisseau developed an artistic style known for its x-ray impressions, rich and vibrant colours, and flat sinuous forms separated by thick black lines. His art influenced the work of other well-known First Nations artists such as Daphne Odjig and Carl Ray who assimilated his iconography and pictographic style in their own work. Morrisseau’s themes incorporate the legends and stories of the Ojibway people and as such offer glimpses into Ojibway culture.

In the 1960s Morrisseau’s work received recognition with the support of Toronto gallery owner Jack Pollock. Following his artistic success he was presented with the Order of Canada and honoured by the Assembly of First Nations.


1Due to conflicting records, Morrisseau's birth year ranges from 1931 to 1933. The exact date is unknown. His place of birth also remains unclear.
2The Art of Norval Morrisseau, The Writings of Basil H. Johnston (Calgary; The Glenbow Museum, 1999) 1.


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