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Back Roads Bill Check your Morriseaus - part two

In this second of a two-part story, Backroads Bill takes us deeper into the background of the Morrisseau fakes, on Morrisseau himself and on some of the effects of the story on other Indigenous artists

Seeing is believing and there are several locations to see original Norval Morrisseau paintings, some of which are close at hand.

We have looked at the “fakes” side of the pending charges involved in the art fraud story and how we need to check our paintings and prints.

It is not just about the fraud but what’s next for Indigenous artists, all Canadian artists and much more.

Some Context

Norval Morrisseau is known as the “Picasso of the North” and his works have recently been part of an art fraud scheme termed one of the largest of its kind in the world.

For more on Morriseau take the time and watch the Feb. 1, 2020, TVO comprehensive documentary, There Are No Fakes.

This complex investigative piece explores the provenance of a painting purchased by Bare Naked Ladies musician Kevin Hearn. He sues the gallery that sold it to him.

It is a stranger-than-fiction tale that leads to forgery rings and the current fraud charges. At present, eight people face 40 charges, and trials are forthcoming.

For the Morrisseau Estate, the work of fixing the fraud damage continues.

"Not just for the family name, but for other emerging artists," said Cory Dingle, the CEO of the estate. " (As part of last week’s story Back Roads Bill purchased “a fake print of a fake original,” as verified by the estate.)

Dingle said the estate is also working on clearing the Morrisseau name from false information, which has been as challenging as finding fakes. They are considering “giving tax receipts or original prints in exchange for fakes.”

He also hopes the investigation will encourage the federal government to create a Canadian governing body for artwork, both from a civilian level and policing one.

He gave an example, “In the United States, the FBI does indeed have its own Art Crime Team," he said. "When you speak with collectors around the world, you constantly hear, 'we do not want to invest in Canadian art; we have issues with your trust and accountability.’ "

A closer look at Morrisseau

A great many Morrisseau originals have made it to mainstream public and private galleries along with private collections.

What about Northern Ontario there are dealers, galleries and private collections all have originals and there are many prints displayed in restaurants and foyers of public buildings and private institutions and businesses. For example, at the Outfitter Bar and Smokehouse in Temagami.

“In particular both originals and prints are now suspect and may be 'fakes,' people have been misled,“ said Dingle. “It is all about knowing the provenance.”

There are a number of Morrisseau paintings at Thunder Bay Art Gallery and The Art Gallery of Algoma has had a Morrisseau exhibition. Director Jasmina Jovanovic said “We have 15 artworks by Norval Morrisseau in the permanent collection. Two of them are currently on display.”

In Red Lake, one of Norval’s homes for fifteen years, Trevor Osmond of the Red Heritage Centre said, “I think that we could very well entertain doing a call out to the community regarding original Morrisseau’s,” as per the exhibition in 2008.

“Initially Morrisseau would use anything he could get his hands on in order to create. Sometimes this meant going to the dump to find paper and pencils. Sometimes it meant using tree bark," Osmond said. 

"He would also use his early works as bargaining chips. When he was desperate for a taxi ride, he would often offer the taxi driver a work of art in exchange. Most drivers took him up on the deal despite the fact that at the time, his works of art didn’t have the same monetary value of today’s standards. Some taxi drivers would save these works of art, storing them in their basement or attic. Others would discard them.

"Years later, of course, Morrisseau would become a household name in Canadian art, and some of these paintings would be worth many thousands of dollars. In a lot of ways, Red Lake’s Morrisseau collection is some of the easiest to authenticate, as it came directly from the artist himself, rather than purchased on the secondary market. Sadly, a lot of art hasn’t survived to the present as it was often improperly handled and stored, or simply forgotten about.”

There is much conjecture about how many Morrisseau originals remain, perhaps as Cory Dingle says, “approximately 1,000 with another 4,500 to 6,000 fakes.”

“One of the more interesting stories that I have heard about Morrisseau is his propensity for creating works of art as a family activity," Osmond said. "Christian Morrisseau, his son, become involved in the art process at a young age.

"Norval would do the sketching and the finishing work but would let the family apply a lot of the colour. This process has been detailed by several Red Lake residents over the years. It may account for some of the differences in art styles.”

Christian passed away on Nov. 2, 2022, and worked with Jim (James White) one of the eight recently charged in the pending art fraud and as seen on the TVO documentary.

The Centre has long celebrated the Woodland Art style. In July of 2008, the Red Heritage Centre hosted the Red Lake Woodland Arts Festival: A tribute to Norval Morrisseau and the Woodland Artists.

The event was intended to instill pride in the art style and the artists who utilize the style. It coincided with the release of a book about Morrisseau’s Red Lake years by Christine Penner Polle, Norval Morrisseau and the Woodland Artists: the Red Lake Years, 1959-1980. I contacted her and then was directed to Michele Alderton, who headed up the exhibition and was eventually located.

“As far as I know, there are still a few Morrisseau paintings in the community, but probably not many. After seeing the interest of Morrisseau’s early works as a result of the exhibition, most Red Lake collectors sold their paintings at a huge profit, either privately or to Toronto galleries," Alderton said.

She went on to relate a story about her experience while researching for the exhibition. 

“I got many, many calls from a fellow who called himself Spirit Walker," Alderton said. "He said he lived in Calgary and worked in the oil fields. He claimed he owned over 100 Morrisseau originals and sent me digital copies of some of them. When I showed the images to Ruth Phillips and Trudy Nicks, (Morrisseau Heritage Society – academics and curators) they told me they were definitely fakes. When I confronted Spirit Walker with that information, he stopped calling me immediately."

There is one print at the Timmins Museum and none at WKP Kennedy Gallery in North Bay. Ally Zmijowskyj Carlos, Collections Care and Exhibition Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Sudbury They have one painting, five prints, and one drawing inventoried. When asked if the gallery would have any verification undertaken the response was, “Thank you again for reaching out. I am not at liberty to discuss the collections any further.”

In Kenora at The Muse: Lake of the Woods Museum and Douglas Family Art Centre, they have two paintings in their collection. Curator Sophie Lavoie said, “They are works on paper that were commissioned in 1973: The Great Migration and Interdependence.”

Nipigon – Red Rock

This summer keep abreast of the Superior Country tourism website. An interpretative panel will be unveiled within the green space near the Township of Red Rock Marina.

A real gem, an early original Norval Morrisseau painting entitled Great Spirit Bear (c. 1962) is housed at the Nipigon Public Library.

Sumiye Sugawara from the Nipigon Public Library said, “At the time there was a program to have art in libraries. I was not around at that time and there is not much recorded about who initiated the idea or how it was funded.”

Inspired by the Algoma Country’s, Moments of Algoma, salute to the Group of Seven and its easel tourism program, Suzanne Kukko, Lake Superior North Shore Tourism Coordinator said there will be an unveiling of a Morrisseau interpretative panel.

“It will include a message to visit the Morrisseau original that was gifted to the Nipigon Public Library. And people will also be encouraged to view the nearby Nipigon River pictographs as it is said that the pictographs he saw while fishing and hunting with his grandfather, as a child, influenced the Woodland style he would later develop.”

 I have paddled to these rock motifs a couple of times and it is worth the little effort and time it takes to do so from either Red Rock or Nipigon access points.

Indigenous Art

One of the oldest private art galleries/dealers/art supplies in Northern Ontario is K Bros Maroosis Art Centre in downtown North Bay, open for business in 1963.

George Maroosis became a subsequent owner in 1976, he recently retired as a City of North Bay councillor, having served for 34 years.

“In March 1971, Robert Lavack was instrumental in bringing the father of the Woodland School of Art, Norval Morrisseau and his brothers-in-law, Joshim and Goyce Kakegamic and Carl Ray to North Bay, introducing a new art form to K Bros. To this day First Nations Aboriginal art continues to be a central focus of the gallery.”

“K Bros Art Gallery now K Bros Maroosis Art Centre sold original Morrisseau paintings in the 1970’s they were all done on a variety of paper. We never sold any on canvas. We also sold Triple K (a print shop was set up in 1973 in Red Lake, Ontario by Josh and Henry Kakegamic along with their father David and their brother Goyce; it was the first native silk-screening production company in Canada) silk-screened prints these were not photo reproductions. We did carry a variety of Morrisseau reproductions and art cards from Canadian Art Prints based in Vancouver.”

“Norval is considered the father of the Woodland School of Art. Many of our artists past and present paint in the Woodland Style. We still carry original Kakegamics by both Josh and Goyce Norval’s brothers-in-law who are both deceased.”

The gallery carries work by Indigenous Artists Frank Polson, Dreamwalker, Steve Snake, Russell Noganosh and Jack Small Boy.

Maroosis commented on the risk an artist takes.

“Any artist who becomes successful ‘expensive’ and their work is in demand may be a target for art counterfeiters. Dead or alive artists’ work can become a target for criminals.”

I asked how an artist defends their work.

“Almost impossible in this age of advanced technology. One could carefully catalogue their work including photo images and keep provenance up to date on a database. Some artists have used fingerprints and today DNA technology is a possibility.”

He said, “The problem is that artists develop over time, and often are most successful after death after having created many paintings.”

Artist’s Perspective

Michael Cywink is an internationally acclaimed artist born in Little Current, Manitoulin Island and now resides in Espanola.

He’s a graduate of the Museum Studies Program at the Institute of American Indian Arts (Santa Fe, New Mexico). He was first published in 2006 with his short story ‘The Adventures of Crazy Turtle’ and has been exhibiting his artwork since 1979.

His repertoire includes interning with Walt Disney Imagineering and then becoming a First Nations cultural consultant with Disney's America theme park project.

“I have always been actively involved in the community development of First Nations cultural arts. My learning of the “Indigenous Creative Process” began in my early teens. This interest drew me to various locations around North America to study symbolic interpretation.

He has eight portfolios here.

“Seven of them relate directly to my art and I refer people to also Google my name Michael 'Cy' Cywink Wiikwemkoong Artist. There are other Mike Cywinks out there, I am the elder of them all thus "Cy" and Wikwemikong artist."

“I first met Norval in 1977 while in Toronto, I painted with him in 1979. I did not and was not interested in painting his paintings. He had interest in me as a "colourist," as he was into Eckankar (individual, creative spiritual practice, including karma and reincarnation ) at that time. His palette changed after sharing time with him. As for Morrisseau 'fakes', I was personally invited by Norval to use any of his line images and add my own colour to them, all he asked is that I do not sign his name in syllabics or English. That I have never done, but I am contemplating it.”

Michael was an art coordinator with the Wiikwemikoong Art Gallery and a curator for the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation.

“As a curator, I strongly agree the artists need to have copyright control, CARFAC (the national voice of Canada’s professional visual artists.) usually addresses these concerns here in Canada. However indigenous artists/ cultural heritage centres/ museums need to have a stronger control over intellectual property.”

Final words from Cory Dingle.

"Think of the damage to all the Canadian artists from this story. When we talk about all art for sale, it is relational to the greats, including Norval" he said. "If I could go and I can buy a painting that should be $500,000 for $5,000 on eBay, and that's the greatest artist that you have, what is the second, third or fourth artist going to get?

"They are getting nothing," he said. "Art fraud should not be glamorous; it is a crime. So, the damage to Morrisseau's art legacy has an effect across the entire Canadian art market. This fraud has been going on for more than 24 years and the estate thanks all who have contributed to exposing the truth.”

If you want to try to expand your cultural parameters and understand how to appreciate indigenous art head to the backwaters to view pictographs. Then stop by local galleries and see what Morrisseau is all about and many more artists who receive their inspiration from Nature.

Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part story from Back Roads Bill. To read part one, please click here.

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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