Norval Morrisseau was born in 1931 in Fort William, known today as part of Thunder Bay, Ontario, and as was customary, his maternal grandparents raised him. His grandfather Potan taught him Anishinabe traditions and legends, and seeded a passionate desire within Morrisseau to preserve these traditions of his people. At age seven Morrisseau entered into a government-mandated residential school program, where he experienced physical, mental and sexual abuses. At age thirteen he did not return to school, and instead, he became a student of his grandfather’s traditional teachings. Around this time Morrisseau first exhibited the alcoholic tendencies that burdened him later in life.
As a young adult with a natural talent for art, Morrisseau depicted the traditions and legends of his people within his paintings and drawings. His art was initially controversial, as many people in his family and community felt it was taboo to share their traditions with non-Natives. Yet Morrisseau felt it was necessary to preserve his culture.
When Morrisseau believed he had been poisoned by the mother of a woman he had spurned, he visited a traditional medicine woman who cared for him and gave him his spirit name, Ozaawaabiko-binesi, which translates as Copper Thunderbird. He signed his work using Cree syllabics that his former wife, Harriet, had taught him.
In the early 1960s Morrisseau met Selwyn Dewdney, an anthropologist studying petroglyphs, and Morrisseau became a source of information for him. Dewdney, also an artist, became a mentor and friend to Morrisseau. Dewdney assisted Morrisseau with his career and edited his book Legends of My People. In August 1962 Morrisseau met an art dealer named Jack Pollock, and Pollock was so impressed by the young man’s work that he arranged a solo exhibition for him in Toronto. Morrisseau sold out his first exhibition at the Pollock Gallery.
Although he experienced periods of sobriety, Morrisseau struggled with alcoholism for much of his career while he continued to paint and garner accolades, including the Order of Canada in 1978. After he became homeless in 1987, Morrisseau met a young man named Gabor Vadas in the East Hastings district of Vancouver. Morrisseau adopted Vadas as his son within the Ojibway tradition, and
Vadas eventually became the artist’s business manager. Over time, Vadas and Morrisseau created a family together, and some believe that their relationship saved both of their lives and resulted in the greatest output of Morrisseau’s work over the span of his career.
In the mid-1990s Morrisseau’s health began to decline, and he was eventually diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In 2005 and 2006 he became the first Canadian Aboriginal artist to have a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. In 2007 Norval Morrisseau passed away from complications arising from his Parkinson’s disease.