The exact year of Norval Morrisseau's birth is not known, but is thought to be between 1931 and 1933 in Northwestern Ontario. Norval started to paint in 1959, after he received a “vision” telling him to do so. He was the first Ojibwa to break the tribal rules of setting down Indian legends in picture form for the white man to see. He was the first Indian to actually draw these legends and design representative shapes to illustrate his folklore. He is considered the founder of the “Woodland Art Movement” a style emulated by many young Ojibwa artists.
At first he painted on birch bark because that was all he had. He felt he was chosen to set down the great heritage of the Ojibwa; to pass on, in some form of documentation, the traditions and life force of the tribe before it finally disappeared forever. In 1962, Toronto art dealer Jack Pollock “discovered” Norval. He hung 42 original birch bark paintings in his gallery, which sold in 24 hours.
In 1973, Norval Morrisseau became a member elect of the Royal Canadian Academy and went on to receive his full RCA designation. Morrisseau was awarded the Order of Canada Medal in 1978 by the Governor General of Canada for his contribution to Canadian Art. He is collected by The National Gallery of Canada and is the only First Nations Artist who has had a solo exhibition there.
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 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 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 Morrisseau almost died of illness as a small boy. His mother took him to a Medicine Woman who gave him the powerful Ojibway name Copper Thunderbird to give him strength. He signs all his work using his native name Copper Thunderbird using Cree syllabics taught to him by his Cree wife.
Although the road to the present has often been a rocky one, few would argue that Norval is one of the most important artists this country has ever produced, native or otherwise.