Norval Morrisseau was born in 1931 on Sandy Lake Reserve in northwestern Ontario . He was the first Ojibwa to break the tribal rules of setting down Indian legends in picture form for the white man to see and the first Indian to actually draw these legends and design representative shapes to illustrate his folklore. He is considered to be the founder of the Woodland Art Movement, a style emulated by many young Ojibwa artists.
In accordance with Anishnaabe tradition, Norval was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, Moses Potan Nanakonagos, a shaman, taught him the traditions and legends of his people. His grandmother, Grace Theresa Potan Nanakonagos, was a devout Catholic and from her he learned the tenets of Christianity. The contrast between these two religious traditions became an important factor in his intellectual and artistic development.
Morrisseau created works depicting the legends of his people, the cultural and political tensions between native Canadian and European traditions, his existential struggles, and his deep spirituality and mysticism. His style is characterized by thick black outlines and bright colors. He founded the Woodland School of Canadian art and was a prominent member of the "Indian Group of Seven".
During his lifetime, Morrisseau was dubbed the "Picasso of the North" by the French Press in 1969 and is considered one of the most innovative artists of the past century. Unlike Picasso, Norval Morrisseau developed a unique style of art in isolation with no connection to European style and influence. He was the only Canadian artist invited by the government of France to contribute and show his work at their Bicentennial Celebration in 1989. While in Europe, he toured the galleries to see the works of Master artists. He returned to paint in even more vibrant colours and abstract shapes.
Norval passed away on December 4, 2007 from complications arising from Parkinson's disease. During the final months of his life, he was confined to a wheelchair and lived in a residence in Nanaimo, BC, where he was unable to paint due to his poor health. He was buried after a private ceremony in Northern Ontario next to the grave of his former wife, Harriet, on Anishinaabe land.
Today, few would argue that Morrisseau was the most important artist this country has ever produced, native or otherwise.