A 21stCentury Guide to the Woodland Art Movement
R.R. Sinclair © 1999/2006
In the spring of 1962 "Norval Morrisseau" left a simple life in the pristine Canadian northland and flew into a media created frenzy in the great metropolitan City of Toronto. On arrival at the Pollock Art Gallery, Morrisseau was greeted by a throng of media reporters demanding answers to the possible censorship of his work by Ojibwa Elders.
Mr. Pollock welcomed Morrisseau into his gallery, leaving the reporters to wait outside. Though the show wouldn't open until the following weekend the paintings were already up in frames and under lights. Morrisseau had painted new work for this exhibition with superior materials that had been provided by Mr. Pollock. The results were spectacular. Many were large and decorated in colour that literally danced off the canvasses. One could only be awestruck by their collective impact.
Of the paintings to be exhibited several were notable in that they depicted certain ancient rituals that traditionally were kept secret. These rituals had been passed on by word of mouth from Shamanistic practitioners to their apprentices for many generations. Within the Ojibwa community to even speak of such rituals had always been taboo. Prior to Morrisseau's arrival Mr. Pollock played up to the local media the fact that the work to be exhibited included taboo subject matter. Stories soon appeared in newspapers and Native community Elders took notice. Ojibwa Elders were particularly venomous in their opposition to Morrisseau exhibiting paintings of the 'shaking tent ceremony' and attempted to legally have the exhibition halted.
Shaking tent practitioners are medicine people [Shamans] who specialize in rituals that include both the living and those who have already passed on. Traditionally they have the power to cast judgement upon the spirits of either; therefore they were revered even as they were feared. An individual involved in a shaking tent ceremony hoped to recover something that had been lost. If stolen, the practitioner would see to the judgement of the thief. In cases which involved the taking of another life or various forms of psychic infringement the judgement was often severe and irrevocable. The ceremony would take place within the confines of a Tee Pee. The individual seeking help would be tied within to a central pole and there remain steadfast to face the truth.
Over the course of a ceremony, those outside would hear strange sounds leading up to a magnificent climax with the teepee shaking as judgements were put into effect. Those who had been initiated through a shaking tent ceremony were forever bound to silence and themselves subject to judgement if they broke their vow.
Norval Morrisseau, with his 'x-ray' images of these hidden proceedings, would effectively expose this sacred ceremony for all the world to see. The exhibition, including the pieces in question, opened with much fanfare. All 42 paintings sold on opening day. The Canadian art community's response was overwhelming for the young artist. He returned home to the cheers and protests of his own people and with his new-found wealth he financed a week long celebration for his entire village.
The council of Elders, infuriated with the exhibition and his behaviour afterward, officially exiled the artist from the Ojibwa people. In spite of this, the Ojibwa people did not shun him. Instead, they respected him. In spite of his growing popularity, he was subject to the anger of the Ojibwa Elders who went so far as to employ Shamans from as far west as Alberta to 'psychically' quiet him. Some people feared Morrisseau and the curses that were rumoured to surround him, though many more were inspired by his success. Media across Canada picked up the story of his sell-out exhibition and overnight his work became a novelty in the Canadian art and culture societies. Critics called his artwork original, powerful, significant, and visually captivating.
The Toronto exhibition had catalysed the public's interest in all
things aboriginal, yet the mysteries revealed in Morrisseau's paintings
created more questions than answers. Soon other Ojibwa artists, inspired
by Morrisseau's success in the 'white man's' world, began to appear.
Fueled by Morrisseau's success, young people were suddenly asking Elders uncomfortable questions about their heritage. The Elders themselves were trying to cope with the political implications of their public 'martyring' of Morrisseau. Native people began talking to one another, in effect empowering themselves in the potency of their common past.
Those who asked Morrisseau about his controversial images were referred to the ancestral gifts of the forefathers found painted on rocks throughout the province of Ontario. He felt that the legends and myths passed on to him by his grandfather and the petroglyphs were suitably expressed through his art so he chose to let his paintings speak for themselves. To make matters worse for the Ojibwa Council of Elders, Morrisseau's reclusive nature combined with his official exile helped him to continue painting prolifically.
In the meantime galleries were springing up across Canada that heralded a new Canadian art movement the media titled, the "Woodland School of Native Art". Artists were literally 'coming out of the woodwork' claiming to be members of the school and followers of Morrisseau. Morrisseau, however, remained a recluse, as he continued to sell his paintings through sold out exhibitions and major projects exclusively arranged by Pollock.
In 1978, in part to escape his self-imposed solitude, Morrisseau felt compelled to create a special series of paintings depicting a 'new school'. In this series of paintings he depicted the new school as a unique collectivity of talent which he himself would design and realize.
Morrisseau believed that the original Woodland School of Native
Art, which by now included hundreds of artists spread over three
generations, was a product of the media and shady art dealers, quick
to profit off of a fad. Soon after completing this new series of paintings
Morrisseau flew to Toronto on a vision quest in order to found the "Thunderbird
School of Shamanistic Arts''. Morrisseau derived the school's name from
his personal Shamanic title or totemn, 'Copper Thunderbird', which was
a blessing that he received through his Grandfather.
His new vision of the Thunderbird School motivated him to once more break barriers considered taboo. He flew to Toronto intent on forming the Thunderbird School. He was guided in his quest by his own prophetic dreams and painted depictions which for him clearly defined the physical features, nature, and even astrological signs of those who would be the originating members of the school.
His dreams and paintings showed that the school would be built foursquare in accordance with the traditional aboriginal medicine wheel. Two cornerstone "visionaries" would be of Aboriginal descent and two would be European. This would effectively create a vibrational 'rainbow bridge' between races, thereby opening up the Shamanistic teachings to the Western world in an undeniable fashion.
It was the summer of 1979 when an inspired Morrisseau quickly moved back into the public eye. At another major sold out exhibition at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto he released the first of two art books. His book entitled, "The Art of Norval Morrisseau", proved to be so popular that it went through three printings in France alone. At the same time he negotiated a high quality limited edition printing venture with a new organization called 'Nexus Art'. The deal also included a series of four limited edition, gold-trimmed collector plates depicting the four seasons. He held numerous media interviews and rented a posh Spanish villa north of Toronto. During this period he painted up a storm, running art studios out of both the villa and the Nexus Art downtown location. His activities were motivated however by his one-pointed intention to found the Thunderbird School of Shamanistic Arts.
The two Aboriginal aspects of the pyramidal foundation of the
Thunderbird School were already complete. Morrisseau considered himself
and his native protégé and spiritual son, Brian Marion
[Little Hummingbird], to be cornerstones in the new school. Marion,
a Cree/Ojibwa from Saskatchewan, had worked with Morrisseau for several
years. Though he had six biological sons Morrisseau adopted Brian as
Morrisseau believed that the Thunderbird School Artists would just appear at one of his exhibitions armed with a full understanding of their linked destiny. The public exposure didn't bring the hoped for result however, and when they didn't appear, Morrisseau grew frustrated. He was restless to return to the north country before Autumn so he decided to place classified ads in Toronto newspapers to speed things up. The ads were simple and direct, concisely stating that a Canadian artist of some note sought his protégés. He then drew up a specified list of questions that his assistants would ask prospective candidates prior to any interview with himself. For example, candidates would only receive an interview if they were born under the astrological signs of Aries or Capricorn (more specifically the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox).
After hundreds of applicants and 27 interviews by Morrisseau himself, he gave up, cancelled the ads and prepared to journey home. Several days after his decision to leave, the 28th prospect Morrisseau would interview showed up out of nowhere. As the story goes, the candidate watched the early morning sunrise stir up a sweet breeze that turned over the pages of an old newspaper left by the side of the road. An unusual classified ad caught his attention and he found himself overwhelmingly compelled to go to the address mentioned in it. Once there, he asked the assistant at the gallery if he might receive an audience. He was told that interviews were now over though the Artist would arrive later that afternoon to pick up his paintings that the gallery were holding for him. The candidate decided to wait around in the hope that the artist would have a moment to see him.
Several hours later when Morrisseau walked in to the gallery, he immediately recognized the candidate from his recent paintings and dreams, though at first he said nothing. When told that the candidate was hanging around in hopes of a last minute interview, Morrisseau called him over. When they were alone, he asked the candidate the tell-tale question that he had previously asked the other 27 applicants.
The candidate answered correctly and then Morrisseau called him by name,
"Stardreamer, where have you been?
That day Ritchie Sinclair left the 'white man's' world to live and learn the ways and means of the Great Spirit. As Morrisseau had been directed in his vision, the third 'cornerstone' would know the fourth cornerstone, and so it was. One night Carl Henderson, a New York based artist, originally from the Canadian province of New Brunswick, had a profound dream. That very night Sinclair also had a dream where he relived his meeting with Henderson many years before in Toronto. Sinclair awoke the next morning to the realization that Carl Henderson was the very artist described in detail only the day before by Morrisseau.
After securing his New York number, Sinclair phoned. Carl's memorable dream-vision revealed to him all he would need to know about his role in the Thunderbird School, and the call from Ritchie was all the confirmation that he would need. He caught the next flight north to Toronto. With their pyramid now complete, and a rainbow bridge of understanding yet to be created, the four artists left the city to paint. They joined their talents together to create multi-canvass murals depicting the members of the Thunderbird School in the process of high ritual, wearing appropriate ancestral ceremonial garb. These paintings, ritualistically created in tandemn, explored their shared creative power and the mysteries of shamanism.
In creating paintings collaboratively, the Thunderbird School broke with fundamental artistic traditions. Though the four artists were aware that by creating paintings together their pieces would be "unmarketable" in the art community of the day, they also foresaw that they were planting the seeds of a shared and future destiny.
They dedicated the Thunderbird School to the exploration of Shamanism as a human rite (right) of passage, with art as one of many tools utilized to guide one into power. Collaboration with others similarly empowered would be instinctual; a higher creative synergy that they believed was symbolized in the Thunderbird.
The esoteric nature of the Thunderbird School succeeded instead in attracting the attention of cult-like religious groups such as the California based 'Eckist' movement, who were believers in the vibrational powers of sound and light, and the Institute of Applied Metaphysics (I-AM) who claimed decendancy from the Atlanteans. Adding to such groups was a steady stream of willing natives and shady art dealers. Distractions became commonplace at the Villa and the artists found it increasingly difficult to work.
Eckists would gather by the hundreds to meditate and sound their "Hu" meditation beneath Thunderbird School paintings. Native groupies slept in their cars and became self-proclaimed bodyguards to the school, while "wannabee native" new age seekers camped on the grounds. Neighbours were constantly complaining about excessive noise, bonfires and other unusual occurrences.
After the Villa's plumbing succumbed to the effects of paint, and became clogged beyond the capabilities of plumbers, the four explorers decided to shut down both the Villa, and the Toronto operation, and take a break. They decided that they would set up their Thunderbird School once more in the spring, further North in an isolated location near Thunder Bay. Their plan, however, was never to be realized.
Carl Henderson died suddenly and tragically in New York at the tender age of 25. His 'translation' as prophesied in the Morrisseau painting, "The Shaman and his Disciples" [1979 McMichael Canadian Collection], confirmed the truth of Carl's destiny yet provided little solace for the loss felt by the three remaining members of the School.
Carl Henderson's enthusiasm and nobility will always be remembered by those who knew him personally. The original paintings left behind by Henderson may number less than three hundred yet each are brilliant and beautiful paintings that reflect the maturity of his skill as an artist, and his grasp of the spirit and intent of the Thunderbird School.
Marion and Sinclair eventually became accomplished artists and teachers in their own right; each within his own racial community. The three remaining Thunderbird artists would often get together to recharge batteries, reminisce and paint side-by-side but they rarely collaborated again. In 1994 Sinclair exhibited a 21'x16' mural entitled "The Meeting Place" as the centrepiece of the First International Pow Wow held in Toronto's new Skydome. The mural, which included traditional inlay and design painted by Marion, remains the first and only exhibition of the collaboration that was the hallmark of the Thunderbird School.
Today many of these pieces that were painted in tandemn by the Thunderbird School are tucked away in the homes of collectors. In British Columbia, Morrisseau keeps a quality body of work in long-term storage. Within are collaborative canvasses and the hand-picked best of Morrisseau, along with an extensive collection of Morrisseau soapstone sculptures. Though Morrisseau is a prolific sculpture, he has chosen not to exhibit his sculptures.
These paintings and sculptures are cutting edge 21st Century contemporary art. All of them are extremely powerful Shamanistic tools. Morrisseau has taken it upon himself to finance the creation of a museum in Winnipeg to be erected at the time of his death. The museum's mandate will be to properly exhibit this work and other antiquities of First Nations culture. To this end Morrisseau continues to collect aboriginal artifacts for the museum.
The stories of Norval Morrisseau's adventures are legend to the thousands who have met him. The multitudes who have been influenced indirectly through his work to date probably number in the millions. Within Canada he has been the subject of media attention for years. Officially he is recognized as the 'Grand Shaman' of the Ojibwa people. He is also a recipient of the esteemed Order of Canada, which is awarded for service to the country and he holds two Honourary Doctorates.
Though two major art books have been produced, and his historical significance is well documented and taught in schools across Canada, what Norval Morrisseau means to Canadians, to North American Natives, and to people world-wide, will yet be realized.
This book attempts to bring to light not only the value of his art and his influence, but also some truth about the nature of the man himself. Norval Morrisseau is one of those rare individuals with a 'heart of gold' and the boldness of character to share it with others. His creative work is born out of his concern and his joy for those who have touched his life. In turn, his work reaches out to touch others with the majesty and magic of his awe-inspiring vision.