THUNDER BAY - Norval Morrisseau is considered to be one of the greatest artists not only in Canada, but also around the world, inspiring a generation of painters in what would become known as the Woodland School.
“I don’t know if people realize that he is one of not only Canada’s greatest painters, he is one of the greatest painters of the 20th century,” said author Armand Garnet Ruffo. “I’m not the only person to say this. People like Picasso said it himself.”
On Sunday, as part of the an exhibit at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery from its permanent collection of Morrisseau’s work, Ruffo read from his creative biography, Norval Morrisseau: The Man Changing into Thunderbird, detailing the prolific Indigenous artist’s life and work.
“I don’t know if there’s anyone better suited to speak to the works at this point than Armand Ruffo,” said Andrea Terry, acting curator with the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to bring him here with the help of the Thunder Bay Public Library.”
Morrisseau was born in Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, formerly known as Sand Point First Nation, where he began painting at a young age, and he would later be known for creating his own artistic school.
“He’s had a profound impact on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in Canada, in terms of if not form itself, then certainly the use of colour,” Ruffo said. “In terms of Indigenous artists, there are numerous painters to this day who use the Woodland School style.”
The Woodland School often depicts outlines of animals, people, and nature and utilizes vibrant colours.
“He created his own form, his own school. He did amazing work,” Terry said. “So for the people of Thunder Bay to have this amazing gallery here featuring his work is quite incredible.”
Ruffo undertook years of research for his book, which included several interviews with Morrisseau before he passed away in 2007, as well as speaking with dozens of others who knew him throughout his life.
But it was the paintings themselves that served the greatest inspiration in Ruffo’s work.
“One of the things it did for me is it made me start really thinking about the form I was writing in,” Ruffo said.
“When I wrote the biography, I didn’t want to write a straight standard biography, I really wanted to incorporate the mythic elements of the paintings, which incorporated into his own life, into the work. The book itself bridges both realism and the mythic elements of the Anishnabek world view.”
Those mythic elements are also reflected in Ruffo’s own creative work and he published The Thunderbird Poems, a collection of poems each inspired by a Morrisseau painting.
Morrisseau’s work has been shown in galleries around the world and is often sought after by collectors. The Thunder Bay Art Gallery has 117 Morrisseau pieces in its permanent collection and Ruffo said people in Northern Ontario should be proud to have these works on display.
“It’s fantastic. It’s an amazing collection,” he said. “He did amazing work. So for the people of Thunder Bay to have this amazing gallery here featuring his work is quite incredible.”
“I think it’s really exciting,” added Terry. “It’s quite meaningful in that we have a lot of artists who lived and worked in the area who studied with Morrisseau. To have such a large collection of Morrisseau’s work is quite meaningful because we can bring it out time and time again.”
The Norval Morrisseau: Works from the Permanent Collection will be on display at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery until May 19.