Norval Morrisseau – Shaman-Artist: Armand Garnet Ruffo’s “Man Changing into Thunderbird (Transmigration), 1977”Posted: October 14, 2013
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“I am a Shaman-Artist. My paintings are icons. That is to say: they are images which help focus on spiritual powers generated by traditional beliefs and wisdom.” (Norval Morrisseau)
In the course of writing Man Changing Into Thunderbird, a book about the life of the acclaimed Ojibway artist Norval Morrisseau, I found that his art moved me in such a manner that a natural and spontaneous response to it was to write poetry. Initially, I thought that I would write a few ekphrastic poems based on some of the paintings that I admired most and I thought gave insight into the artist. And because the poems are based on specific paintings, which for the most part are dated, I also figured that the inclusion of the poems would provide a time frame that would help ground potential readers. However, as I learned more about Morrisseau’s life and immersed myself in the paintings, more poems appeared. What did these paintings mean to him, and what do they mean to us, the viewers? My plan was to include all the poems in the one book, but as the poems increased I realized that due to length there were far too many to include them all. I also realized that I had a complete book of poetry. The Thunderbird Poems includes all the poems that I wrote during this period of study and contemplation on the art of Norval Morrisseau. The piece below, “Man Changing Into Thunderbird (Transmigration), 1977”, is excerpted from The Thunderbird Poems.
Armand Garnet Ruffo
. . .
Norval Morrisseau said that for the longest time he dreamed of doing something great. In 1976 he joins the Eckankar “new age” movement in an attempt to stop drinking, and moves to Winnipeg. While there he plunges into a six panel painting with complete confidence that speaks to his genius.
Man Changing Into Thunderbird (Transmigration), 1977
Though he has had no idea how to squeeze the essence of the story onto canvas from the first time he hears it he wants to paint it. But how to go about it? The question haunts him, dangles in front of him, gets caught in the dream-catcher web of a spider, escapes through a hole in the night sky and slides down a path of owl feathers into the world of myth and creation.
The story says there were seven brothers. One day
the youngest Wahbi Ahmik
went hunting and met a beautiful woman
named Nimkey Banasik.
They fell in love at first sight
and the young warrior took her home to his wigwam
where they lived as man and wife
and were happy.
All the brothers cherished her except one
Ahsin, the oldest,
Who felt only hatred for her.
The idea grows inside him the way a butterfly grows inside a chrysalis. Except it is not about a butterfly, it is about a thunderbird and, more, about a whole way of being, about perception and belief. When it finally cracks open, or rather he cracks it open, the idea is so large he knows instinctively it will be one of his most important paintings. Not junk commercialism done for a quick buck. Not twenty paintings pinned to a clothesline, jumping between them like a jackrabbit. Not another set of nesting loons or another multi-coloured trout. Not something he can paint in a half-closed eyelid stupor. This time his eyes are wide open and burning with possibility as though giant talons were digging into his memory and stirring imagination. As though they were clamped onto his shoulder muscles with the steady beat of locomotive wings and were lifting him high above the ground.
One day Wahbi Ahmik returned from hunting
and discovered the campfire near his wigwam
stained in blood.
Panic stricken he rushed to his wife
but discovered her gone.
Knowing what his brother Ahsin felt for her
he stormed into his tent
And demanded to know what had happened.
I see a trail of blood leading into the forest.
What have you done?
By this time he is again showing at Pollock Gallery in Toronto but hardly under Jack Pollock’s tutelage, their relationship strained by their personalities. His home in Red Lake is now far behind him, and he is lapping up the good life like a saucer of cream. Though it isn’t cream he is drinking. By this time his art little more than a means to an end, more commerce than calling. He will sell it to buy the basics like cigarettes and groceries (though he eats little for a man his size), shoes or a shirt when he needs it. Though more often than not he simply trades for whatever he wants: a week’s rent in a flop house, a bottle, a meal, an English Derby plate, a Spode teapot, a blowjob, a fuck, everything and anything. The moment: the only thing that matters.
Ahsin was not afraid of his younger brother’s anger.
You brought this woman Nimkey Banasik to our village.
We were all happy together before she came.
Now she is gone for good.
When you left this morning I sent our other brothers away
to be alone with her.
Then I saw her cooking for you
and I got out my sharpest arrow
which found its mark in her hip.
I would have chased her down and killed her
if not for the roar of thunder
that filled the sky
and frightened me.
As for Pollock he is still smarting from the Kenora court case a couple of years earlier when he was sued for stealing several of Morrisseau’s paintings. (Though he knows it wasn’t instigated by the artist himself, and after it was over Morrisseau gave him a big bear hug like he was cheering for Pollock all along.) Furthermore, by this time Pollock’s gallery and personal life are in shambles, his blatant honesty and vanity making him persona non-gratis in what he calls Toronto’s bitchy art scene. His own life of flirting with excess, his hot and horny appetite for cocaine and sex scarring his body and mind. (So honest and vain Pollock admits it all in a book printed in England where nobody knows him personally, admits that if he were to drop dead tomorrow the single most important thing he would be remembered for is the discovery of Norval Morrisseau. “Damn it,” he says, as though reading a crystal ball, knowing it as the truth.)
Oh Ahsin! my foolish brother, cried Wahbi Ahmik.
Even though I am mad enough kill you
I pity you.
Did it not ever cross your mind who Nimkey Banasik was?
You must know her name means Thunderbird Woman.
I would have told you
if not for your blind hatred.
I would have also told you
she had six sisters.
Can you not imagine the power our children would have had?
What it would have meant for all of us.
For this woman was a Thunderbird
in human form.
And now it is too late.
To say that Morrisseau is Pollock’s cash cow and he is only in it for the money would not be fair unless one put it in perspective and said that Morrisseau is everybody’s cash cow. (For this reason he is never alone.) No, safe to say there is something more between them. For Morrisseau their initial meeting is no accident. There is no room for accidents, or luck for that matter, in his belief system.
I am leaving to never return until I find this woman
Wahbi Ahmik said, as he turned his back on his brother
and followed the blood trail
that led far into the great forest.
For many moons he traveled until he came to a huge mountain
that reached over the clouds and beyond.
And he began to climb higher and higher
Until the earth disappeared and he reached the summit.
And there before him on a blanket of cloud
stood a towering teepee
across the sky.
To be sure, whatever their frailties, together they are magnificent. It is as if together they walk on clouds. Pollock reads Morrisseau’s mind like a cup of tea leaves and reminds him of his purpose and stature, prodding and coaxing to get the best out of him.
From the majestic edifice came the laughter of women
which suddenly stopped.
For they felt his presence.
Then the teepee flap opened and there stood Nimkey Banasik
looking more beautiful than ever.
With concern she asked why he had follow her.
Because you are my life, he answered.
She smiled upon hearing his words
And beckoned him forward.
Come inside, she said,
And we will give you the power
to walk on clouds.
Pollock knows the painter can handle scale, which he proved in My Four Wives and Some of My Friends, both of them an impressive 109.8 cm x 332.7 cm. What he doesn’t know is that Morrisseau has also done sets of paintings, diptyches, like Merman and Merwoman, and has played with perspective in The Gift where he divided the canvas into two panes. The problem is that Morrisseau is living in Winnipeg, and this makes it nearly impossible for Pollock to keep track of him. He knows the artist is up to his old tricks of selling his work to the first person that approaches him with a few dollars rather than go through the trouble of bundling up the work and sending it off. The temptation of a quick money fix has always been one of his greatest failings. “Something the bastards are quick to seize upon,” Pollock says. The challenge is therefore not to keep him painting, which he does naturally, but to make sure he sends what he does to the gallery.
Inside the wigwam were seated two old thunderbirds
in human form.
Light radiated from their eyes
Suggesting a presence full of power and wisdom.
Immediately they saw Wahbi Ahmik’s hunger
and offered him food.
In an instant a roar of deafening thunder erupted
As they stretched out their arms and changed into thunderbirds
and flew away
To return with a big horned snake with two heads and three tails.
They offered it to Wahbi Ahmik to eat
but he quickly turned away from writhing mass of flesh.
The next morning they again asked him if he needed food.
and the thunderbirds returned with a black snake sturgeon
and later with a cat-like demigod.
And Wahbi Ahmik grew weaker
Pollock flies back and forth between Toronto and Winnipeg, making sure that Morrisseau is not going astray, and takes whatever paintings the artist has finished. Bob Checkwitch of Great Grassland Graphics is also working with the painter during this time doing a series of prints and helps to keep him in check. Through meetings, telephone calls and letters Morrisseau and Pollock discuss the concept for Man Changing Into Thunderbird and after much discussion Morrisseau decides to translate the story into a series of panels. Like Pollock, Morrisseau knows this will be his greatest work to date.
Finally the old woman who feared that Wahbi Ahmik was starving
told her daughter to take him
to her great medicine uncle
whom she knew would have strong medicine for the human.
They laid Wahbi Ahmik on a blanket of cloud
softer than rabbit fur and wrapped him gently
so that he would not see.
And with the thunder suddenly erupting
Wahbi Ahmik felt his nest of cloud move.
After what seemed like a mere moment
and his wife Nimkey Banasik
removed the cloud from around him .
And there in front of Wahbi Ahmik
perched on a cloud
stood a great medicine lodge.
Three weeks before the opening, which is scheduled for August 10that 2:00 pm, Pollock receives four panels, but he can see that the series is incomplete. Another two weeks pass and he starts to become anxious. He telephones Winnipeg and Morrisseau assures him that he will bring them to Toronto with him. Pollock warns him that he needs time to prepare the paintings. They have to be stretched and framed. Again Morrisseau tells him not to worry.
Nimkey Banasik looked around him and saw many lodges
the homes of many different kinds of thunderbirds
All in human form.
Entering the great medicine lodge
Nimkey Banasik brought her uncle greeting from her mother
And beseeched him for help.
My mother said that you would have medicine for my husband
so that he may eat as we do
And perhaps even become one of us.
The old thunderbird stood in silence pondering the love between them
and the consequences
of such an action.
Let it be known that if this human takes my medicine
He will never return to earth
but will become a thunderbird forever.
Then the medicine thunderbird took two small blue medicine eggs
mixed them together
And advised Wahbi Ahmik to drink it.
On Friday, August 9th Morrisseau saunters into the gallery about lunchtime. Under his arm is the roll that Pollock is expecting. Everyone breaks off installing the show and gathers around to see the last few panels. Morrisseau grins as he unrolls two blank canvasses. As Pollock tells it, he is stunned. It’s the last straw, and he barks and growls at the artist who calmly assures him that the pictures will be finished in time for the show. Pollock exclaims that the other panels are still at the framer’s and he won’t be able to use them for reference. No problem, Morrisseau says, unmoved by the calamity that Pollock foresees.
The moment the potion entered Wahbi Ahmik
he felt a strange power surge throughout his body.
Looking at his hands and feet he saw
they were no longer human
but of the claws and wings of a thunderbird.
With the next drink the change was complete.
He was now a thunderbird.
His human form, the wigwams, the great medicine lodge
Everyone was now a thunderbird
inhabiting the realm of thunderbirds.
And so Wahbi Ahmik and Nimkey Banasik
thanked Southern Thunderbird
and flew home together
where Wahbi Ahmik feasted
on thunderbird food
and lived out his life with this beloved wife Nimkey Banasik.
Morrisseau purchases ten brushes and twenty tubes of paint from Daniel’s Art Supplies up the street from his hotel. For the life of him Pollock cannot fathom how he is going to execute the paintings, how he can possibly carry in his head the complete chromatic palette of the first four panels. As he is leaving the room Morrisseau tells him to come back at one o’clock in the morning and he’ll have the paintings ready for him. Not knowing what to expect, Pollock returns at the exact hour. Morrisseau swings open the door to his room, and there they are laid out on the floor. He has finished the series with two more panels. The moment Pollock sees them it becomes clear to him that the artist has not only successfully recreated the colours of the first four panels, but he has somehow managed to keep in his head both their composition and scale. They are exactly like the originals. He is stunned. With the canvasses still wet, Pollock carries them back to the gallery in his outstretched arms and takes them for framing the moment they are dry. The show opens on time with Morrisseau touching up the new panels with daps of paint on the tip of his right index finger. Within one hour the complete set of six panels is sold. Everyone who is witness to the work is awestruck.
And the people who remained below
in the world of humans
generation upon generation
remember Wahbi Ahmik
as the Man Who Changed
. . . . .
Norval Morrisseau is considered by art historians, critics and curators alike as one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. Among his awards and honours were the Order of Canada and the Aboriginal Achievement Award. Referred to as the “Picasso of the North” by the French press, he was the only Canadian painter invited to France to celebrate the bi-centennial of the French Revolution in 1989. A self-taught painter, Norval Morrisseau came to the attention of the Canadian art scene in 1962 with his first solo and break-through exhibition at Pollock Gallery in Toronto. This sold-out show announced the arrival of an artist like no other in the history of Canadian art. In the first ever review of his work, Globe and Mail art critic Pearl McCarthy declared him a “genius.” Born in 1932 in the isolated Ojibway community of Sand Point in northwestern Ontario, and having lived a tumultuous life of extreme highs and lows, Norval Morrisseau died in Toronto in 2007.
Drawing initially on the iconography of traditional First Nations sources, in particular the sacred birch-bark scrolls and the pictographs (prehistoric ‘rock art’) of the Algonquin-speaking peoples, Morrisseau went on to incorporate a wide array of contemporary influences in his art, ranging from the techniques of modernist painters and the imagery of comic books and magazines, to ‘new age’ philosophy. Continually evolving as a painter, he quickly eschewed the label “primitive artist”, becoming renowned for his daring experiments with imagery, scale, and colour. Following on the heels of Morrisseau’s success, a younger generation of painters, both Native and non-Native, followed in his style, becoming known as the “Woodland School of Painters,” the only indigenous school of painting to emerge in Canada.
Armand Garnet Ruffo draws on his Ojibway heritage for much of his writing. Born in Chapleau, northern Ontario, with roots to the Sagamok Ojibway First Nation and the Chapleau Fox Lake Cree First Nation, he currently lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and teaches in the Department of English at Carleton University. His works include Grey Owl: the Mystery of Archie Belaney (Coteau Books) and At Geronimo’s Grave(Coteau Books). His poetry, fiction and non-fiction continue to be published widely. In 2009, he co-authored “Indigenous Writing: Poetry and Prose” for The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature, and, in 2013, he co-edited An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English for Oxford University Press. In 2010, his feature film “A Windigo Tale” won Best Picture at the 35th American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.
The Thunderbird Poems will be published by Insomniac Press in 2014.
. . . . .