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THE BEARDMORE GARDEN PARTY
On June 25th, 1978, the late, great, legendary shaman artist, Norval Morrisseau, Copper Thunderbird, invited twenty-four guests to his home and studio in Beardmore, a small town north of Lake Superior for a tea party like no other. It was an experience I’ve always wanted to write about and on this occasion, the exhibition and catalogue publication by Kinsman Robinson Galleries on the fiftieth anniversary of Morrisseau’s first sold-out exhibition at the Pollock Gallery in 1962, has given me the opportunity to share what I had witnessed.
The mise-en-scène for this tea party was a throwback to that 1962 exhibition, a show of paintings enigmatically illustrating stories that were likely told for generations and the tea party was to celebrate the spiritual and cultural achievements of the artist. Norval came from a family of shaman who could read the images on the birchbark scrolls to perform healing or storytelling. Greatness and humility illuminated the ascendency of a bicultural sentinel. Morrisseau would eventually be invited to be part of Magiciens de la terre, a contemporary art exhibition at the Centre George Pompidou, in Paris in 1989. In typical Eurocentric manner, his work was framed as an ethnocentric practice within Western art. Was the world ready to embrace this artist as Canada had?
Devoted to the spiritual ancestry of the Ojibwa and fascinated with Roman Catholic ecclesiastical pomp and ceremony, Norval, oblivious to the colliding cultural norms he had brought together, urbanity and woodland, created a unique blending of both without any polemical stratagem of cultural identity at his tea party. It was to be performance art with traditional ceremony, it was to be surrealistic!
Having flown from Ottawa the day before the flight to this northern mining town, I attended a party at the Rosedale apartment of Jack Pollock who had already been to Beardmore once before to meet Norval Morrisseau.Most of the invitees would be travelling with him, many for the first time to Beardmore, on this round trip flight that his gallery staff had arranged. During the evening, oranges were filled with vodka using a syringe in preparation for the next day’s non-alcoholic flight during which new friends would be shaped by the mutual admiration for this new sensation on the Canadian art scene.
Conversation was focused on the new indigenous painting style inspired by the image bank carved, etched and drawn on the Laurentian Shield, a pictorial language from the Woodland library of legends and stories. Excited about meeting the artist behind these powerful new primordial images of mythological subjects compelled me to recall a comparison made by Delacroix between the European antiquity of his Greco-Roman heritage and that of the Americas – he used the phrase les chevaliers de la foret.
We had all taken his advice to dress in clothes befitting a royal garden party, ladies in elegant summer dresses, large hats, lacy parasols and long gloves, and the men in three-piece suits with cravats, most wearing designer sun glasses. We boarded a DC-3 early the next morning filled with expectations that something very special was going to happen that day in Beardmore.
After arriving from the airfield in a yellow school bus, expectation turned into astonishment!Standing tall, Norval awaited us in the yard of his home and studio dressed in light buckskin pants and vest with a floral print ribbon shirt. Replete with various amulets and medicines in small pouches around his neck and topping off a new coiffure with a traditional Ojibwa headdress, eagle feathers erect, he looked every inch the shaman, Norval Morrisseau becoming Copper Thunderbird. He walked over to the gate carrying a ceremonial staff in one hand and a hand-carved, wooden bowl full of American buffalo nickels for everyone in the other smiling at us all.A symbolic jester, simple yet polemical, he greeted me in Anishnabe, “Neejee,” meaning brother. Even his voice had a more thundering tone, a lower register. I felt privileged to have been invited to a ceremonial feast.
After everyone had been welcomed with some chatter and laughter, he showed us into his backyard, which again was a mixed arrangement of cultural differences.We could overlook the uncut, two-foot tall grass but not the swirling, biting blackflies. To him the woodland was a refuge from the mental garbage of urbanity, a place where body and mind, underwater serpent and thunderbird, continue their eternal struggle for dominance. Replenished with the delirium found in nature, he behaved graciously and attentively; he displayed traditional Anishnabe hospitality that is conferred on people invited to a feast, wéekoonga. The ceremony involved a protocol that would have him treat us as he would the ancient messengers and the grandfathers all the while bearing the inquisitive grin of a shapeshifter, or trickster like the Cheshire cat depicted in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”.
As the afternoon progressed, the host/shaman opened his bundle, a powerful gesture of welcome and humility. Everything was natural of course, raspberry tea, small pieces of fried bannock in carved wooden bowls and wild rice, muhnoomin, the food of the grandfathers. The women drank tea poured from a silver teapot into Royal Doulton; the men drank from cups similar to those used in residential schools. The cultural clash was clear as was the creative tension in witnessing an artist using two cultures to create something new.
Cultural conceits can make for stylistic affectation; imagine petite bourgeoisie and autochthon at a formal tea party in the woodlands of northern Ontario. The combination of colonial times represented by dressing up for tea served by a shaman and the beginning of postcolonial critique on the centrality of shamanism when looking at his body of work made me think of the satire of high society in Federico Fellini’s, La Dolce Vita (1960). The colourful picnic spread on the “lawn” was a wryly ironic tableaux vivant of colonial times when the likelihood of such an event ever taking place was rare or never, cultural parody without the polemical rhetorical language of postmodernity.
Lunch/ceremony was placed on several large monochromatic blankets of red and blue with black lines on opposite ends accompanied by a separate, special display of bundles, ceremonial pipe, eagle fan, a pair of white and a dark eagle feathers, a turtle rattle, maize, and other medicines and amulets, all symbols of power. Before starting, Norval signaled for help and I obliged. He had been having trouble lighting the kindle and by now his two drummers and protégé were talking in Ojibwa about typical day-to-day things to cover the awkward silence. When I entered the conversation speaking Saulteaux, which Norval understood, he continued to talk giving me the idea that perhaps something was about to begin. As we continued to make the smudge, he turned to me with a slight grin and said “look”, nodding at those who didn’t understand the languages we were speaking, and whispered “they think that we have started the ceremony”.
The guest list included a spiritual leader, a gallery director and assistant, a lawyer, a curator, an art critic, a fashion designer, an editor, a media person, private and corporate collectors, other artists and friends. All had taken their place in chairs against the house where the shade provided relief from the hot afternoon sun. The repeated remarks about the kindle resonated as chanting if one wasn’t familiar with the language. The resulting aboriginal humour made light of cultural differences but hunger, Windigo, was making us all think about when we had last eaten.
Finally, with a burning smudge of purification of both the food and the guests, Copper Thunderbird spoke again in the language of this ceremony, Ojibwa, then switched to English to explain the meaning of what he was doing.He asked the grandfathers to be present and to take pity on his request. The rest of what was chanted was barely audible; everything was going to happen as it should. After purifying the food the guests began to serve themselves.
Later, pouring tea, smiling and chuckling, answering questions politely, at times passionately, especially when it was about art, Norval, animated or philosophical but always kind and generous, would cite his astral travels, often setting a Socratic discourse on colour. These discourses consisted of travels to the House of Invention, a Morrisseausque expression. It was around this time that he become interested in Eckankar, a religion founded on the belief that through study and practice of spiritual exercises one can experience inner light and sound.
The afternoon was culturally special but things were to get much better. One by one, we were given an audience during which time the artist created a drawing in his newly minted indigenous allegorical style, each one personal and appropriate pulled from his pantheon of legend characters, creating a significant art historical moment.
When my turn came, I entered the house, speaking both Saulteaux and English, he, Ojibwa and English. Our conversation began with a question about a portrait of Jack Pollock that I had seen the night before at his apartment, “Self-Portrait. Devoured by Demons” (1964, Art Gallery of Ontario) and another similar subject “Man and Snake” (1965, Glenbow Museum). As a museum curator, my interest in this artist and his work required some questioning of both he and Pollock. Jack was amusingly flattered by my observations on the portrait when describing his nose as aquiline. Norval smiled approvingly and commented on serpents as the subject of obsessions and passions.His numerous versions of self-portraits represent sexuality, a Dionysian equation of the fertility of nature and unrestrained sensuality. His self-doubt and the physical and spiritual trauma that caused it became evident when he wrote: “After all, half my life I have been criticizing myself, feeling guilty, and it’s hard to get away from that. But something in there keeps saying, ‘Don’t give up! Don’t give up!’ Sometimes I pull the blinds I want to give up. But I keep going”. (p.49, Pollock, Sinclair).
Smiling and fancying my question and interpretation, he began to draw. I sat there talking, filling the quietness and he encouraged me to continue. Ever intense, his hand began quickly drawing the underwater lynx starting with its horns without ever lifting the graphite pencil. Once finished, chuckling, he handed me an exquisite drawing of misshipeshu, the water spirit who loosens inhibitions and inspires creativity. I did not want this extraordinary moment to end, but the time for another to have a drawing done specifically for her or him had come.
Once outside, the stillness in the air was broken only by the rustling of leaves in the trees. There is an old Saulteaux adage that this sound is the wind whispering that someone who loves you is thinking of you. The idea of such a romantic reading of natural phenomena is something the late Norval Morrisseau would have loved.I miss him now, remembering the edge of the woodland wilderness and the stories of how things in nature can be conceptualized poetically. - Robert Houle, July 2012
National Gallery of Canada; McMichael Canadian Art Collection; Royal Ontario Museum; Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian; Detroit Institute of Arts; Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art; Tweed Museum of Art; Dennos Museum Center; Art Gallery of Ontario; Art Gallery of Mississauga; MacLaren Art Centre; Thunder Bay Art Gallery; Art Gallery of Algoma; Red Lake Regional Heritage Centre; Art Gallery of Windsor; Government of Ontario Art Collection; Indian & Northern Affairs Canada; Canada Council Art Bank; Canadian Museum of Civilization; Trent University; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; McCord Museum of Canadian History; Musee national des beaux-arts du Quebec; Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery; MacKenzie Art Gallery; Glenbow Museum; Winnipeg Art Gallery; City Hall Collection; Etobicoke Board of Education; Toronto Star Collection; Hart House Collection; Robertson Art Center; The Ondaatje Corporation; Guardian Capital Group Ltd.; Procter And Gamble Inc.; lmperial Oil of Canada; Northern Telecom; Weir & Foulds; Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt; Montreal Trust Collection; Canadian lmperial Bank of Commerce; Noranda Mining And Exploration Inc.