A homoerotic shaman Canada's greatest artist?


What if I told all you Loyalist and Tory art lovers out here on the East Coast, in Toronto, and Alberta that some ugly, alcoholic, Native bisexual was the greatest Canadian artist who ever lived? You might tell me to get stuffed.

This year Norval Morrisseau would have turned 80. He had been suffering with Parkinson's disease and died in 2007 of cardiac arrest. The man was an enigma who left a legacy of paradoxes—and art historians scrambling to clean up the mess. But who was this madman and why should we care?

These are questions writer James R. Stevens touches in his recent book, A Picasso in the North Country, The Wild Journey of Canadian Artist Norval Morrisseau. I should add here as a disclaimer that Jim is a friend, and I'm not inclined to write a review of a friend's work.

But this wasn't my first encounter with the famous artist. I'd met him a couple of times; once was just before the end when he was selling bad paintings in a Thunder Bay mall. The other was an uneventful encounter in the late 1960s in a friend's apartment in Thunder Bay.

Not too long after that first meeting, the friend, Ray Andrews, told me about riding with Morrisseau on a cross-town bus. Within a couple of minutes Morrisseau asked him out on a date. When Andrews laughed it off, Morrisseau waited until the next stop, pulled a long phallic rock out of his pocket, and offered it "as something to remember" him by before getting off the bus. The rock is long gone, but the story is another of the apocryphal tales that add to Morrisseau's mythology.

And it's Morrisseau's mythology that Stevens unravels with these stories, and in doing so brings a richer understanding of the artist's life that might have been otherwise lost. But the question remains, why would we view Morrisseau as the greatest artist?

There's the conventional story. Through the tangled wreckage of his art career—which ends in art forgeries and a strange array of people caught up reshaping his legacy—we can now see the complete picture, starting with his early work in earth tones guided by Selwyn Dewdney. Then the Toronto years with Jack Pollock and their acrimonious split. And finally his Vancouver years.

All of this is well documented along with several decades of drifting across the country and periodically retreating back to Northern Ontario, famously giving away paintings for bottles of booze. And the man knew he was a mythic figure; he bought into his own shamanistic reputation, managed it, and played it for all it was worth.

Canada has a deep catalogue of excellent artists, from British-born Fred Varley to realist Alex Colville to popular modernists Michael Snow and Jack Bush. And all of them worked hard to define the Canadian experience and bring it to the world. Christopher Pratt's barren landscapes and more recent barren nudes come to mind. Or Jack Chambers' The 401 Towards London. But these originate in a European or American tradition reapplied to defining who we are as Canadians, as seen under a microscope or through a long lens (which adds an odd bit of irony to Colville's stark binocular painting, To Prince Edward Island).

Others, like Emily Carr and Bill Reid, translated the Canadian experience through Aboriginal images and totems. And native Woodlands artists like Roy Thomas caught the form but entirely missed the message.

The same was true of many of Canada's artists of the day. Their work provides a valuable record of our natural history, geography, and cultural iconography, but little of it examines their own meaning in society. But Morrisseau went beyond looking at society -- which he chose not to explore -- and directly channeled his own inner Canadian experience.

Merging his early experiences from the residential school with later experiences living on the streets of Beardmore and Thunder Bay, Morrisseau became a human being on his own terms, and did what no other Canadian had done before him. He explored himself. Not as a Canadian, but as a man.

This is exactly what qualifies Morrisseau as Canada's greatest artist. He was the first Canadian to paint his country from the inside out—not the outside in.

It was Morrisseau's vision of himself—as us—and not some cold-eyed gaze at his land or culture.

As Stevens' book tells us, here was a young man not afraid to dress up in drag and parade around one of the toughest logging towns in Northern Ontario in the early 1960s. Desperately poor, marginalized, unattractive, and strange, he asked, "Who am I?" To answer that, he adopted the fish and animals he'd seen on petroglyphs and painted his own in black and sepia in his now famous X-ray style.

When his mentor and adviser Selwin Dewdney tried to hold him to that style, Morrisseau rebelled, as he would again and again. He evolved. His work began to include self-portraits and wild colours. He became the child in the Madonna's arms. He became the man with the exposed penis and garish feathers in the stained glass paintings. One doesn't need a diagram to understand the origins of these images.

But motivation matters. And ultimately, in both life and in art, Morrisseau's insatiable "I want" cravings drove him from a Métis kid born to the rubbish heap, to international art superstar, to tragic figure.

In the end Stevens wisely dismisses the notion of Morrisseau as a shaman. Morrisseau was what we acknowledge him to be, a true artist.

Today's artists such as playwright Tomson Highway and performance artist Rebecca Belmore owe much to Morrisseau. We all do. John Ralston Saul alludes to this in A Fair Country when he points out that we are all Métis. As has the National Gallery's curator Greg Hill, who formally reclaimed Morrisseau as an equal in the pantheon of Canadian greats.

Yes, Norval Morrisseau was a flawed human being. Yet he is who we are, if we have the heart and the eyes to see. But buyer beware. His work is still so powerful that one piece can easily dominate an entire house.


  1. Sir, when linking to a "strange array of people" and pointing readers to a blog post about one Ritchie Sinclair, it should be noted that the blog master responsible for the post you are linking to is being sued for defamation. To demonstrate exactly the standard of journalism you are linking to, it should be noted that all charges against Mr. Sinclair were dismissed at trial and he has not one criminal charge on his record unlike that particular blog master's associates.

    As for Mr. Stevens? His book leaves much to be desired and his research is very much uneven. Great in some spots and downright negligent in others.

    Mr. Sinclair wrote a good review of it to point out exactly some weaknesses:


    Maybe while you're at it, you may wish to ask yourself why Sinclair was found innocent of all these slanderous allegations yet it has not been reported by those vilifying him publicly?

    I do believe your observations of Mr. Morrisseau are of value and in fact quite interesting. I just wish people would be somewhat more responsible when painting innocent individuals with a tainted brush. Mr. Sinclair is a real person, with real family. He is being attacked for pointing out there are problematic paintings. Something your friend Stevens himself pointed out in his book.

  2. I appreciate your comments, anon. I will stay well clear of these issues as I have neither the knowledge of them nor the interest to pursue them. As to the strange array, all the characters will doubtless reveal themselves over time.

    As to Jim's book, I'm certain he can defend what he's written without my help. As to my opinion, the post above should be self-explanatory. My point was about who we are as Canadians and how we see ourselves. Morrisseau was a guide, as are Ralston Saul and others.

    I have no opinion one way or another about Mr. Sinclair, Mr. Vadas, Mr. Lavack, assorted gallery owners or others involved. I wish them all well. But thanks for pointing out the dispute. It is an ongoing part of the Morrisseau story.

  3. You certainly don't wish me well in perpetuating Ugo Matulic's fantasies and by re-defining me as a "strange" individual. What I find strange is the fact you apparently have no interest in exploring or sharing the greater truths about Morrisseau yet you took time to read Stevens illegal book and conclude that it is I reshaping my mentor's story.

    I challenge you (and Stevens) to show me and the rest of Canada what an authentic Shaman looks and acts like from your point of view.

    You have not steered "well clear of the issues". In fact you clearly chose a side. When your 9 year old child comes across similar strange information about you one day I hope your loved ones handle it as well as my children have.

    My problem with the elite is that they think intellectual analysis suffices yet without experience to "guide" them they instead peer down the Rabbit hole into darkness and conclude, "not interested".

    Reading travel books doesn't make one a tourist, does it?

    Ritchie Sinclair

  4. What has happened to the journalism profession? It would be a pleasant change to see a reporter actually look into this, rather than further obfuscate the Morrisseau forgery issue. This time it is in the guise of a puff piece of the Steven's book - another biased sample of Morrisseau opinion, clearly in dire need of peer review - and only published through a vanity press. This isn't the real story.

    Look at the facts. Art historians and other experts, including the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Foundation established by the artist himself, widely recognize that there are thousands of counterfeits fraudulently attributed to Morrisseau. This is potentially the most significant art fraud in Canada’s history.

    The prevalence of counterfeits was of deep concern to Morrisseau and during the final years of his life he actively sought to remove these from the marketplace through notarized declarations directed at those responsible. These declarations have withstood challenges in court. Morrisseau's efforts were dismissed by the offending dealers and galleries, and the selling of fake Morrisseau's continues unabated to this day.

    Ugo Matulic, the individual you have now publicized, apparently owns 500 of these fake paintings, and so has a vested interest in presenting only one side of the story, in a manner that is both fraudulent and libellous. Matulic is connected directly, by his own admission, to the very same dealers and galleries identified by Morrisseau. At the moment Matulic is being sued by Morrisseau's former principal dealer, Kinsman Robinson Gallery. Other galleries and dealers are also being sued for selling fake paintings.

    Richie Sinclair is acknowledged, most recently by the Ontario Superior Court, as Morrisseau's primary protégé and an expert in his own right. This is in the public record. Sinclair has been the most public advocate of the Morrisseau issue, bringing this important story to the public's attention at great personal sacrifice. He has done so at great personal risk, for no reward other than the protection of his mentor's legacy - and he has borne the consequences of his actions - years of criminal harassment, fraudulent use of the courts to attempt to silence him, and false statements made to the Toronto police that resulted in his arrest - by the very same dealers and galleries identified by Morrisseau as selling fakes. Do you see a pattern here?

    Even the most superficial of inquiries would reveal that Sinclair has successfully defended ALL the false claims made by these dealers and criminals, admirably so. Not two weeks ago he was found completely INNOCENT of the false charges laid by Joe McLeod and his daughter for which he was shockingly imprisoned by the Toronto police. Joseph Otavnik, a close associate of Mcleod and Matulic, will soon be in criminal court to defend his criminal harassment of Sinclair. Otvanik was convicted previously of two other criminal harassment charges in unrelated cases. The Artworld of Sherway, another gallery identified by Morrisseau, is being sued by at least one former client for selling fakes - and other galleries have quietly and not so quietly refunded buyers of fakes. These are facts, and can easily be verified through court records.

    It is admirable that Sinclair, without financial means, has fought so successfully for his mentor's legacy and in the interest of the public, and continues to do so, against dealers and galleries flush with funds, millions, from their obviously criminal activities. Canada owes Sinclair a great debt of gratitude. That is the real story here.

    As a journalist, I would expect you have the decency to thoroughly investigate an issue before expressing an opinion to the public. Your story and the link to Matulic's website (and the particular page), benefits only those associated with this crime, and further tarnishes Sinclair's reputation. As a journalist you should be working to protect the public's interest, not undermine it further.

  5. Dear McE your post has encouraged me to further research and explore these issues. Thank you for your effort.

  6. Thank you, Mona. And thanks for dropping by. Morrisseau continues to be an intriguing subject.

  7. http://norvalmorrisseau.blogspot.ca/2012/04/downloadable-norval-morrisseau-forensic.html

  8. Google "distinguishing Morrisseau paintings and the imitations" for an interesting scientific report on the subject.


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