The Woodland school of art is originally attributed to Ojibwe artist, Norval Morrisseau from the Sandy Point Reserve in Northwestern Ontario who drew inspiration from the pictography traditionally incised on rocks and sacred birch bark scrolls and his understanding of native spirituality. His work represents an innovative vocabulary which was initially criticized in the Native community for its disclosure of traditional spiritual knowledge and stories and legends which had heretofore belonged in the realm of Ojibwe oral tradition. His colourful, figurative images delineated with heavy black formlines and x-ray articulations, were characteristically signed with the syllabic spelling of Copper Thunderbird, the name Morrisseau’s grandfather gave him. Morrisseau completed many commissions and received much acclaim throughout his career.
Norval’s contemporary Daphne Odjig, is one of the first generation of Manitoulin artists, born before World War II, whose work, through individual vision (and influenced by the Norval’s style) founded the Woodland or Legend style of art though she often claimed that her work differed from the “New Woodland” school as it incorporated the importance of womanhood and sense of family, while others in the New Woodland group “concerned themselves with a spiritual quest”.
An important factor that spread Morrisseau’s and Odjig’s influence to what became a distinctive style and content school of Woodland painters — mostly Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe, Odawa, Cree) — was the brief operation of the summer art camps through the Manitou Arts foundation, started by Tom Peltier in 1966.
Notable alumni amongst the students were Shirley Cheechoo, Randolph Trudeau, Blake Debassige, Leland Bell, and Martin Panamick, each of whom went on to achieve international renown through their own unique visions, styles and interpretation that still bear certain indications of their origin in Manitoulin’s Manitou Arts. Legends — traditional stories — were what most often inspired the young painters, but they were also interested in nature painting, and cultural history.
These young artists later found continued mutual support and inspiration through summer art programs of the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation held at Dreamer’s Rock on the Whitefish River First Nation, a place of spiritual significance where young people would begin their vision quest through fasting and prayer.
The Woodland school of art can best be described as a “shock wave” originating with Norval Morrisseau, whose spiritual imagery and visual language immediately communicated itself to many artists of the northern Woodland with immense power and inspiration. That inspiration was fostered and grew on Manitoulin Island, with the help of other Woodland artists, especially Daphne Odjig, and the Manitou Arts Foundation, and later was nurtured and cultivated by the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation which to this day continues to support and promote nascent artists, the third generation of Woodland art, amongst the Anishinabek.
Many excellent examples of the work of these artists can be seen in galleries and at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation in M’Chigeeng.