Man Changing into Thunderbird, by Norval Morrisseau (1931–2004), is a six-panel masterpiece that throbs with colour and design and leaves viewers breathless with its intimate yet iconic rendering of the artist’s life up to 1977. 


Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977

Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977
Acrylic on canvas, first of six panels: each panel 153.5 x 125.7 cm, private collection, on loan to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

In these six panels, Morrisseau melds his early experiences with his later adherence to Eckankar teachings (a religious practise that facilitates soul transcendence). The work not only records Morrisseau’s shifting vision of spirituality and his personal growth as an artist, but also charts his personal transformation into Copper Thunderbird, the spirit name he received in a healing ceremony and used as his signature. As the background colour of the panels becomes increasingly more copper, eclipsing the yellow ground in the first two panels, Morrisseau visually transforms: he is a young man embarking on a spiritual and artistic journey in panel one; a wing emerges in panel two; and a claw appears in panel three. By the fourth panel, the background has become entirely copper and two claws and a shamanic hairstyle signal the artist’s evolution. 


In the final panel, Morrisseau’s transformation is complete: he has become Copper Thunderbird. The intense colour and elaborate decorative elements in his changing headdress and regalia unite as Thunderbird, making this personal work a beautiful narrative conflation of self and artistic style. Morrisseau said of this work, “I’ve wanted to paint this picture for fifteen years but I couldn’t do it in those days. This is the ultimate picture for me and I’m sharing it. Sharing it is wonderful.” 


This Spotlight is excerpted from Norval Morrisseau: Life & Work by Carmen Robertson.

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