Copper Thunderbird took flight today.
Norval Morrisseau, the great Canadian artist, died at Toronto General Hospital. He was 75. His death after a long and feisty battle with Parkinson's disease won't be the end of the gritty story of the great Anishinabe painter once called "the Picasso of the north" who signed his canvases "Miskwaabik Animiki" or Copper Thunderbird.
"I've always wanted to be a role model," he told the Star several years back, his words barely audible and slurred even then. "I've always wanted to stay an Indian. I wanted the little kids to know that."
"He certainly was a role model for me as an art student," said Greg Hill, curator of "Norval Morrisseau – Shaman Artist," the groundbreaking retrospective of the artist's work last year at the National Gallery in Ottawa, which is now at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.
"He was the first aboriginal artist I was aware of. He will always have that kind of presence." A member of the Order of Canada, Morrisseau was the sole Canadian painter shown at Paris's Georges Pompidou Centre in 1989 as part of the French celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution.
He "spearheaded a cultural renaissance in First Nations arts and culture in the `60s," Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a statement today. "He taught us to be proud of who we are." Morrisseau appeared in Ottawa to be awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation. "This is the highest honour we can bestow on our own," said Foundation CEO Roberta Jamieson.
She expects Morrisseau's life and art "will be the centerpiece" of the 15th annual Awards Show, March 7, 2008 at the Sony Centre in Toronto.
Morrisseau's dazzling debut show in Toronto that opened Sept. 12, 1962 at Jack Pollock's gallery instantly established the painter's reputation and led to a Time magazine story. "That was at a time when Canadian First Nations art didn't seem to exist," said Gerald McMaster, the leading First Nations historian and head of the Canadian collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
"Morrisseau's presence woke people up. He was the torchbearer. What he did and what he said – aside from his eccentricities – had enormous power and influence over several generations of artists."
Through the `70s and `80s, the painter's "eccentricities" – binge drinking and often a hand-to-mouth street existence – were the despair of his friends and buyers of his work who were uncertain of the authenticity of his paintings.
The artist admitted to this reporter in 2004 that he signed other artist's work "if they needed the money."
Yet surviving the mean streets in Vancouver and Toronto gave him the reputation for being indestructible. "You can't imagine he's actually gone," said a choked-up Hill.
Only a month ago, Morrisseau was taken in a van to A Space Gallery to show an exhibition. "And you could see he was very much alert," said McMaster. "There was a small crowd there moved to tears to see this great man."
Repeated heart problems weakened him noticeably over the past year, said Gabe Vadas, Morrisseau's companion and caregiver since the two meet in the `80s.
"He'd have a great day then he'd have a bad day," Vadas explained. "But he was getting worse."
"So now he's on the next part of his journey," said Jamieson. "We're going to celebrate that.