This is the story of one of the most celebrated, most original and most notorious artist in Canadian history. Norval Morrisseau, an aboriginal from the Ojibwa tribe, taught himself to draw and paint in the 1950’s so as to give visual expression to his grandfather’s shamanistic dreams. His works received instant national acclaim when first exhibited in Toronto in 1962. But what unfolded was a tragic and sometimes bizarre personal life that mixed intentional homelessness, public alcoholism and even an entanglement with the Mafia. Yet Morrisseau still managed to become the country’s most collected painter, with some 800 canvasses held by public galleries and to invent a painting style, subsequently called the Woodland school that has become an important form of expression for many native artists in North America.
This is the first-ever one-hour documentary about the life of Norval Morrisseau. It has privileged access to Morrisseau’ s adoptive son, Gabor Vadas, to his biological son David Morrisseau and to the artist himself in the final days of his life. The film mixes 1960’s black-and-white footage with romantic, vibrantly-colored recreations and gritty experimental camera work on the streets of Vancouver to create a startlingly intimate portrait of a consummate rebel and an artistic giant who single-handedly attempted to preserve the powerful symbolism of a North American culture Morrisseau calls, with unwavering pride, “The Great Ojibwa.”
The filmmaker discovers that what lies at the root of Morrisseau’s self-destruction is his sexual abuse by priests at a Catholic boarding school in the early 1940’s. Countless other native children suffered similar abuse in other Canadian boarding schools. Morrisseau’s story conveys the extent of the psychological and spiritual damage inflicted by the dominant culture, but he also symbolizes one man’s triumph through the power of visionary art.