Interview with Armand Garnet Ruffo

On Norval Morrisseau and where biography and poetry intersect

Armand Garnet Ruffo draws on his Ojibway heritage for his writing. In 2014, his creative biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird appeared with Douglas & McIntyre. In 2015, The Thunderbird Poems, poems based on the paintings of the artist, was published by Harbour Publishing. He currently lives in Kingston and teaches at Queen’s University.

Photo credit: Pearl Pirie

Your two most recent books, the biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird and the poetry collection The Thunderbird Poems, both come out of your research into and engagement with Norval Morrisseau’s life and work. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to Morrisseau and his artwork, and why you found yourself responding to his work in these different ways?

I have to say at the outset that from the very first time I saw Norval Morrisseau’s work at Robertson Gallery in Ottawa in 1982, I was mesmerized by it. Of course I had seen his work in magazines prior but I’ll never forget the first time I actually saw his paintings. Of course I wanted one! So I guess I have always been drawn to Norval’s work.

And it goes without saying that Norval Morrisseau’s best work is magnificent and a truly singular achievement. I mean he created his own style of art! And for someone of Ojibway heritage like myself, it is a profound statement about cultural survival, and beyond to rebirth.

That said, what got me onto Norval’s trail so to speak was an invitation by the National Gallery of Canada to write something for the Norval Morrisseau “Shaman-Artist” retrospective catalogue, and one thing led to another until I had the two books. I have to say though that at first I was hesitant. Like many people, I had heard a lot about him, but I really didn’t know very much. Right from the beginning, then, I knew that if I took on the project I would have to learn a great deal, everything from visual art history, aesthetic theory, Ojibway material culture, the Ojibway oral storytelling tradition, about the Ojibway “Manitous,” and I knew it would be daunting. Not to mention that I would have to learn the details of his life!

So while I was thinking about all of this, I guess you can say I had a kind of epiphany, where I suddenly realized that his life was indelibly connected to what had happened to Aboriginal people in Canada during the first half of the 20th century. (He was born in 1932 or thereabouts.) Sure he was unique because of his artistic gift, and he had an extraordinary life, but what happened to him, the abuse, the poverty, the displacement, the stereotyping, was conversely not unique to him.

Furthermore, the NGC ended up giving me carte blanche as to how I wanted to approach the subject, which also opened a door for me, and which I found both intriguing and challenging. And so, after the NGC’s catalogue came out, I continued to work on the project, and I ended up with the two books. I’m still not sure how that happened, but the poetry came naturally, if not always easily, and in the end there were simply too many poems to include in the one book.

There is connection between the two books other than just the subject matter, because I included a few of the more lyrical pieces in the biography and a few of the longer prose poem pieces in the poetry collection. I like the idea that they are connected in more ways than one to each other.

What went into your decision to blur the borders between poetry and criticism, as you do (for example) when you preface the poems in The Thunderbird Poems with notes about Morrisseau’s life and art and sometimes respond to or comment on the paintings themselves?

I did that for practical purposes, because I figured that some of my readers would know little about Norval’s life and probably even less about Ojibway culture. I wrote the poems first and then went back and added the prose, but once I started doing it, I realized that it was exactly what the poems needed; to my mind, the “commentary,” or criticism as you call it, adds a kind of gravitas to the book.

I was also interested in adding another form to the book, something that would mirror the poetry. Form and genre is something that has always interested me.

What are some of the challenges of writing about a real person, either in biography or in poetry, where you need to respect them and their families but also maintain a certain distance and perhaps be critical?

That’s a tough one, isn’t it? First, I can say that I adhered to the facts of Norval’s life as I understood them. In other words, I never tried to make anything up. If I have him riding the taxi-boat from Cochenour to McKenzie Island, rest assured he took the taxi-boat! As for personal things that might be controversial, like sexual abuse, I tried not to leave anything out but at the same time I did not want to sensationalize things either.

I think that’s one of the reasons the poetry happened. I found that I could handle things in the poems that would have been difficult in the prose. I found I could say things through implication in the poetry that I would have had to spell out in prose at the risk of sounding sensational. To my mind, then, I think the two books compliment each other in that together they serve to bring all the disparate facts and events to light.

I suppose you could say they echo each other to provide a kind of dimensionality to Norval; together they plumb straight down into his life and art.

Morrisseau’s work is well-regarded and its importance is established. How might you have approached the books differently if he was relatively unknown? What benefits or difficulties does his already-existing reputation provide?

Certainly it would have been a very different book, because Norval’s fame is part and parcel of who he was; for example, the money that came with the fame allowed him to do things that most artists can only dream about. Think about it, he never had to worry about his material life. He constantly had a following of groupies, apprentices, and acolytes, whatever you want to call them, who basically worshipped the ground he walked on. No unknown artist could possibly have had the life that he led, sold out shows, everyone constantly after him, wanting to represent him, wanting to be his friend.

The most difficult thing I encountered as a biographer was that there were people who knew Norval, but, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t talk to me. Norval was a very complex person, and likewise his relationships were very complex. On that note, I was lucky — though Norval probably wouldn’t call it that — because despite his fame, mine is the first full-length book about him, and so I didn’t have to compete for the story.

Conversely there were many people who were eager to talk about him. It’s also interesting to note that while Norval has this huge reputation, few people actually know the full story of his life. People could tell me about a small portion of his life, some aspect of it, such as the “Red Lake Years,” for example, but not much else. So it was left up to me to piece all these disparate facts together.

And, yet, there are still many, many untold stories about him, and I suspect there will be other books, though probably none using the narrative and poetic techniques I’ve employed. In fact, I know a scholar who is currently writing an academic book about him.

Outside of the fact that they are generally regarded as his masterpieces, what made the paintings of “Man Changing Into Thunderbird” so important to you, so that you titled both books around them and so on?

To put it in a nutshell I think the theme of transformation is central to Norval Morrisseau’s life. As I say in the book, he was always the thunderbird man changing into someone else. For example, he had this ability to walk away from people, his family, friends… objects, his art, personal possessions… whatever, and simply move on. How many times did he start over in another part of the country? Only later to move on again.

The theme thus connects him to the idea of rebirth, starting over, relapsing, one step forward and one step backward, and I think this too is integral to who he was. And, further, I see it representing his deep-rooted connection to his Ojibway culture, the mythology and epistemology of the Anishinaabe, which informed who he was as an “Indian” (as he always said) and, of course, as you note, to his artistic practice — which, I can say with confidence, will live on as long as human-kind has a place for art and beauty in the world.

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Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

The Thunderbird Poems ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )