~ This post was originally published on April 24th, 2008-
It all started with a letter from home, pushed through the mail slot of my Swedish address with the usual flood of junk mail. Enclosed was a MacLean's magazine article featuring Norval Morrisseau, a Canadian Ojibwa artist and my nemesis of almost thirty years ago. An old friend had sent me the article, no doubt to stir up memories of experiences we had shared with Norval.
Having been out of contact with my Canadian roots for many years, I assumed that Norval's destructive life style had sent him to The Happy Hunting Ground long since. I was grudgingly pleased to read that he was still alive.
The MacLean's article recalled for me a hilarious yet often perilous association that began in the mid 1960s and continued for almost ten years.
At that time, I was a consultant for the Ontario Department of Education, covering a territory that stretched from the American border in the south to Hudson's Bay in the north, and from about twenty miles west of the Lakehead (now Thunder Bay) to the Manitoba border more than 300 miles further west. About ten percent of the population of the area was Ojibwa and Cree Indian, most of them living in isolated communities north of the gold mining towns of Red Lake and Pickle Crow. Access was only by air. I was an experienced pilot certified to maintain my own aircraft.
My first meeting with Norval occurred at a Chief and Councilor's training course sponsored by The Ontario Department of Education and the Federal Department of Indian Affairs. He was living on his wife Harriet's Sandy Lake Reserve, and the band elders selected him for the course.
My branch of the Department was responsible for sports and art for both Indian and white communities. Thus I was destined to see a lot of Norval, whose artistic growth was obviously being restricted by the isolation of Sandy Lake. His hand-to-mouth existence and growing family responsibilities aggravated the restriction. However, it was the problem of obtaining art supplies that tipped the scales, along with Norval's wish to be in contact with other artists. And so he adopted an itinerant lifestyle, putting great stress on his family relations. However, it was a step towards his goal of becoming a famous artist, a goal he achieved at great personal cost.
When in 1970 I convinced the Department to sponsor an "art circuit" to bring an appreciation of Indian art and culture to northern communities, I didn't realize what a task it would be. Had I known that I would eventually become Norval's and Carl Ray's pilot, keeper, marriage counselor and general fixer I would have fled the scene on winged heels. As it was, Norval and Carl changed my routine civil service life into a series of madcap adventures.
I like to think that I influenced Norval's life by bringing him back, time and time again, to the path that led him to international recognition. He paid his debt to me by providing escape from a life that held security but little happiness.
I left Canada in 1972 and lost track of Norval. Many years later, settled in Sweden, I regained possession of the three thick files I'd assembled, long ago, on my association with him. I had once entertained the thought of writing about this period in Norval's growth as an artist. As I scanned these files, the idea re-surfaced and I enlisted an email correspondent, Hazel Fulford, as co-Author. However, Norval's power of attorney refused permission to reproduce the artist's letters and paintings. We dropped the project for two years. Now we have decided to tell the story in our own way.
Copyright © Hazel Fulford 2007
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