One day last fall, the phone rang. The caller was someone I had meet 9 years previously, a Canadian, who was now an art dealer in Taos, New Mexico. We had not spoken for 9 years, and yet it was as though no time had gone by. He knew that I was an avid fan of Morrisseau’s work and wanted to know if I could market this painting for him. When I opened his email and saw the work, I was immediately stunned by its power. This was as nice a Morrisseau as I had every seen. “This is a museum piece” I thought. But the idea of getting the National Gallery interested did not even cross my mind.
By total coincidence, a week later, a friend of mine emailed me asking if I had any new Morrisseau’s he should see. “As a matter of fact I do”. His reaction to my email, was the identical reaction I had. The difference was, he had a connection with the National Gallery. He immediately contacted Greg Hill, curator of the indigenous art department. Hill had currated Morrisseau’s ground breaking one man show there in 2006. Hill’s reaction to the painting was identical to ours. And the rest, as they say, is history. ~ Matt Steffich, August 2010
Norval Morrisseau had a deep connection with British Columbia. The 6′ x 8′ acrylic on canvas, Conquest of the Thunderbird was painted in Victoria during a seven or eight month visit to B.C. It is a powerful and confident work that Norval was very proud of. When Norval was in Victoria in 1982, he frequented the Eckankar Center (for Astral Travel). The center was located in Chinatown, a mere stones throw from where Conquest of the Thunderbird was created. The painting was created in the second floor studio of Luis Ituarte, in Fan Tan Alley, Chinatown, Victoria in 1982. On this large work, Norval probably returned to the canvas several times before it was complete. The artist often explained how he derived the color and pattern first when composing a piece and then the black line around the color brings it into this world, making it visible to us. He also stated that the power and symbolism of the Mexican Flag, (which has an eagle holding a snake), attracted and influenced him while he was painting Conquest of a Thunderbird.
Although the language of Norval s symbolism is complex and interpretive, the Thunderbird interconnects with and reflects his own role as the Copper Thunderbird Shaman. In Ojibwe tribal belief, the Copper Thunderbird Shaman appears once every 700 years. In Conquest of the Thunderbird Norval Morrisseau portrays his own inner journey and mastery of the spirit world through the symbol of the Thunderbird. This painting reflects a relatively clear and comfortable time in his life that was inspired and full of ambition.
Norval rented an apartment and lived in a multi-story building in Esquimalt at the corner of Head Street and Dunsmuir, within walking distance to downtown Victoria. The apartment was not a painting studio but he did produce a lot of smaller works in this space. The Luis Ituarte studio was able to accommodate the large size of the Conquest of the Thunderbird canvas and although Norval produced other large works around this time, Conquest of the Thunderbird was his crowning achievement.
Norval completed several sculptures in soapstone as well as drawings in pen and ink and brush and ink for a book project titled Shaman s Stories for the Children of the Earth. The artist became friends with Gallerie Untitled, a Chinatown contemporary art gallery located at 1618 Government Street, and began to show his work. The first show was a group exhibition titled Gathering of the Mystics followed shortly thereafter by a one-man show. Conquest of the Thunderbird was the showpiece and the featured work of the event.Gallerie Untitled had a back studio that opened out onto a courtyard within Chinatown. Norval loved it there; he was popular with the other artists and the public and this is where he would hang out. Although he was a celebrity and his work was well known, in1982 the economy dropped radically as the Canadian dollar went from $1.12 to .85 to the US dollar. Sales for Norval s work were few and far between. We were able to create a small market with Little Museum Toronto. It was difficult to spark West Coast interest at that time; the Woodland School of Painting was more popular in the East. Eventually, Steven Sherlock, a local art collector, bought Conquest of the Thunderbird at a reduced price. He bought the painting as an investment and found that it was overpowering to the rest of his collection, thus keeping it rolled up until 1998.
In 1998 Sylvia Tebbutt passed away leaving an inheritance that was used to buy four artworks from the collection of Steven Sherlock, including Conquest of the Thunderbird. Since 1998 the painting has been in the collection of K.C. Tebbutt and has traveled on it s roll but is now stretched and framed with a contemporary wide gold frame. Conquest of the Thunderbird is currently on display in the American Southwest and has shown next to great Northwest and Southwest contemporary artists.
Viewers in the Santa Fe/Taos area are now more familiar with the artwork of Norval Morrisseau due to the fact that the National Gallery Exhibition traveled to the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in downtown Santa Fe in 2008. In relation to the National Gallery Exhibition pieces, this painting is larger and more powerful than the work that was on display in the museum show. The subject matter is universal and an inspiring voice to all native people. The true importance and appreciation of Conquest of a Thunderbird, however, will be fully recognized through its Canadian heritage.
On a personal level, Norval deeply believed in his title and work as a Shaman. It was his belief that as the Shaman/Artist he was to lead his people into the new era. He was the Copper Thunderbird and believed that this was his destiny. This painting is the link to the Copper Thunderbird legacy. Now, after he is gone, the controversy of Norval s life continues to affect the public s perception of his creative talent. Controversy aside, perhaps he truly is the prophetic genius that helps us understand the astral dimensions, natural harmony with animals and deeper understanding of primal color, pattern et cetera.
My response to this controversy, as a close personal friend of Norval and fellow artist, is that he was a highly talented visionary. Norval was so consistent and resilient with his concepts, language and symbols, but most importantly with his paint; broad, rich, confident brush strokes. His color choices seem to be from another world and in this composition his voice is reaching beyond Canada with his message as the Shaman Thunderbird. As with the Mexican flag, people find unification and power in his symbols. His conceptual organization and perspective were uniqueand much of his focus was on how to communicate the universal symbols. Many times while Norval was painting, I saw him shift into another dimension, as an artist, driven to completion; his hand seemingly guided by an unseen force. Although his outer movements seemed rugged, the tip of the brush was exact. Norval Morrisseau and The Conquest of the Thunderbird offer such an interesting and important part of history. If the piece had been painted in Toronto it would certainly already be one of his most famous works. Because it was conceived and painted in Victoria B.C. this work is yet to be discovered and recognized as part of his deepest expression.
~ K.C. Tebbutt, October 30th, 2009