Thursday 22 April 2010

Rev. Dr. Bill Steadman on Norval Morrisseau


"Virgin Mary with Christ Child and St. John the Baptist"
40"x32" - 1973 - Collection of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs

Rev. Dr. Bill Steadman

Published March 13th, 2008
The Sudbury Star

Three months ago, tributes poured in for one of the most significant artists in Canada in the last century. Possibly no one had a greater influence on art and artists in this country since the Group of Seven than Norval Morrisseau, founder of the Woodland Art style.

Morrisseau used striking primary colours to tell the stories of his Ojibwa culture. When he began, he wondered if it was even right to share the message of the myths of his people, but so keen was he to make real the stories of his youth that he captured traditional tales in dramatic, colourful portraits.

Growing up in a simple working class house with non-distinct room colours (and little art), I found the rich colours of Morrisseau's creation captivating. Had I only known what fame was ahead for him, I would have purchased some of his small originals in the 1970s, and not spent thousands of dollars on weighty theological texts than no one else wants now.

One of the features of Morrisseau's technique, copied by some of his followers, are the lines that connect the various characters in the picture. One of my favourite pieces, "Bird Family", has what appears to be a father bird, mother bird and two smaller birds huddled in a proud, majestic way, lines connecting them all.

Those lines have a vital purpose to the art. They remind the viewer that we are all connected. There is no such thing as complete independence in the world. A significant learning, indeed, one that is emphasized by a people who speak of others in the world as "all my relations."

At a recent art show where I work, children's art was on display.
More than 200 pieces were reduced in a pre-screening to 68 pieces, from which a list of three winners was determined for permanent display in our offices. Each child had been asked to communicate the work of the United Church's fund for the mission and ministry of the church, the mission and service fund, through the theme "Hand in Hand."
All staff got involved in the judging, and for the most part, younger submissions full of bright, bold, primary colours received a lot of attention (and votes).
There is something captivating about basic colours.
The same can be said about basic words. A lengthy address filled with multisyllabic verbiage is not usually a guarantee to move people to insight or to action. That's why when I go to a basketball game, I have never heard from the announcer anything like the following: "At this pivotal moment in tonight's contest, we request that all patrons to this event offer their enthusiastic cheers and rousing support to the home team as the members continue their prodigious efforts toward success in this contest."
Instead, people are roused with the beat of the cheer: "Let's go, Raptors!"
Morrisseau spoke of deeply spiritual truths, and abiding messages captured by the tales of his people. It was important stuff - so important that he told the stories in simple drawings with basic colours.
If Jesus were an artist, and not a prophet-preacher-teacher-healer, he would have painted like Norval Morrisseau, I am sure.

Did Jesus not say somewhere (thought not quoted in the Beatitudes that made the biblical witness) "Blessed are those who paint with primary colours, for they shall know the basic truths that God had taught us: Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself."
Rev. Dr. Bill Steadman - an Executive Minister of Financial Stewardship for The United Church of Canada, and a former minister at St. Andrew's United Church in downtown Sudbury.


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