Norval Morrisseau

Armand Garnet Ruffo's biography of Ojibway artist Norval Morrisseau was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.

Armand Garnet Ruffo

Norval Morrisseau (1932–2007), Ojibway shaman-artist, drew his first sketches at age six in the sand on the shores of Lake Nipigon, and his first paintings were in cheap watercolour on birch bark and moose hide. By the end of his tumultuous life, the prolific self-taught artist was sought by collectors, imitated by forgers and received the Order of Canada among other accolades. Critics, art historians and curators alike consider him one of the most innovative artists of the twentieth century and arguably Canada's greatest painter.

Morrisseau was a controversial figure too, eliciting everything from resentment to outright condemnation. Living on booze, flat broke and exhausted, he often traded art for a drink to the frustration of his agents. Despite immense talent and success, his alcoholism plunged his wife and children into poverty and he spent years bouncing between skid row and jail.

Armand Ruffo draws upon his own Ojibway heritage and experiences to provide insight into Morrisseau's life and iconography from an Ojibway perspective. Captivating and readable, this is a brilliantly creative evocation of the art and life of Norval Morrisseau, a life indelibly tied to art. (From Douglas & McIntyre)

Norval Morrisseau was shortlisted for the 2015 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.

Read an excerpt | Author interviews

From the book

The more I thought about Morrisseau and his life, the more I realized that his experiences, while extraordinary in their own right because of his unique gifts, were fundamentally connected to something larger than himself. I realized that Morrisseau's life was representative of the profound upheaval that had taken place in the lives of native people across the country. With their traditional economies and support systems in ruins, they were thrown into abject poverty, families literally starving to death, and it was into this milieu that Morrisseau, like my mother, was born in 1932 (which is the birth year that he acknowledged in a Department of Indian Affairs cultural development application). A period that coincided with the unparalleled movement by Native peoples to cities and one-industry towns across the country to find work-shell shocked as they were by a history of missionaries, decades of residential schooling that taught them to hate everything Indian, hate even themselves, the overt racism that made them stand at the back of the line, the total disregard and denigration of their cultures, the stereotypes that continually projected Hollywood versions of them whooping and hollering on the screen.

From Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing into Thunderbird by Armand Garnet Ruffo ©2015. Published by Douglas & McIntyre.

Author interviews

Featured VideoArmand Garnet Ruffo tells Shelagh how the renowned Anishinaabe painter Norval Morrisseau got his spirit name, Copper Thunderbird.