George Morrison: Anishinaabe Expressionist Artist
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George Morrison
Anishinaabe Expressionist Artist

George Morrison was an eminent expressionist painter with a singular romantic vision and an erudite sense of natural reason and liberty. He created an elusive shimmer of "endless space," the color and eternal motion of nature. The horizons he painted were inspired by nature and lightened by his watch and visual memories of Lake Superior near the Grand Portage Reservation in Minnesota.

The artistic creations of George Morrison and Allan Houser were presented in the recent inaugural exhibition of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). "Morrison and Houser belonged to a small disparate group of Native American artists," noted Truman Lowe in Native Modernism, "who ushered in a new, modernist era in Native art history, in which identification with a uniform Indian aesthetic gave way to greater freedom for personal experimentation and expression."1 Morrison was an artist of modern Native liberty.

Native American Indian artists clearly demonstrated the sentiments of romanticism and modernism many generations before occidental dominance, but the name and notion of personal, emotive creative practices that departed from selected traditions have been embraced only recently. Native artists were expressionists and modernists by continental barter, tricky conversions, innovations, transformation, natural reason, survivance, and by nature; these modernist Native visions and mien were brushed aside as simulations of Native "traditions" were constructed by social scientists, museum curators, institutions, and agencies of the federal government.

Modernism and the sentiments of chance, personal visions, and imagic transformations in art were Native practices and much more widespread [End Page 646] than the elite wend of occidental entitlements would sanction in the discovery of Native art, production, and commerce.

George Morrison was a Native modernist painter, and his inspiration was both innate, Native by sentiments of natural reason and memory, and learned by art history, museums, and galleries. He was roused more by the imagic traces of nature, motion, color, and abstract patterns than he was by the academies of modernist turns, modes, and representations. Morrison, in other words, was a Native romanticist and modernist and an eminent expressionist painter by any cultural measure.

Horizon Lines

Morrison told Margot Fontunato Galt in Turning the Feather Around that the "basis of all art is nature." The North Shore of Lake Superior "was subconsciously in my psyche, prompting some of my images."2 Morrison was nurtured in the presence of indigenous sounds and light created by the seasons of the lake. He conceived of these images in the abstract rush of colors and memory, not by naturalism or the mere academic representations of the natural world. Clearly he perceived that nature was never silence but rather a brace of colors and the constancy of sound, a natural music.

Anishinaabe lexicons have no specific name or word for romanticism, no traditional condition, distinction, mode, or practice that separates natural reason from creation. Natives practiced a natural art that anticipated the party of romanticism and modernism by emotive, personal, creative expressions in stories, images, and objects of wood, bone, hide, bark, and stone. Reason was inspired by nature, and Native artists created stories and images of singular visions, a distinctive and eccentric individuality.

Anishinaabe woodland artists were aesthetic by natural reason—emotive romanticists, expressionists, and surrealists in a time of continental liberty. Surely Natives perceived artistic expression as more than mere resistance to realism, naturalism, and other occidental varieties of artistic production and historical movements.

The Anishinaabe word mazinaadin, an animate, transitive verb, means to "make an image," and the word aakwendam, an animate, intransitive verb, means "feelings" and "intense desires" in translation. These two words provide a sense of the emotive creation of an image and imply [End Page 647] the artistic conditions of romanticism but not the movement or reaction to tradition or neoclassicism. Other words related to mazinaadin, a transitive image or imagic motion, are names of new experiences. The word mazinaatese, for instance, means "movie," and mazinaakide means "pictured" or "photographed." Similarly, the emotive word aakwaadiz means "fierce" in the language of the Anishinaabe.

Morrison was inspired by expressionism, an art movement already underway at the time of his birth, September 30, 1919, in Chippewa City, Minnesota, a Native village located...