Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison

A book review by Larry P. Madden

morrisonModern Spirit is an extensive study into the life and times of George Morrison, a true artist who lived his passion. Born on the shores of Lake Superior, the Chippewa artist practiced various forms for his craft. He worked in cloth, wood, metal, and paints of every variety, and this collection includes commentaries by Kay WalkingStick, Kristin Makholm, Dr. W. Jackson Rushing III, and Netha Anita Cloeter. Together these minds collectively dissected and analyzed Morrison’s work through both mainstream and Indian worldviews. Their varied voices were needed as Morrison worked in a capricious manner that incorporated styles such as cubism, modernism, and the abstract. His portfolio’s depth and breadth led some to question whether Native Art can be classified as “Indian” if its subject matter is both subjective and outside of what many have come to expect.

What’s inspiring is that neither his learning English as a second language nor a boarding school experience at Hayward, Wisconsin deterred the artist from achieving his dreams. He even managed to parlay his bedridden battle with tuberculosis that infected the bones in his hip into time to refine his art skills.

In the early 1940s, Morrison was exposed to the art of Picasso and Matisse. With a health deferment from WWII, Morrison contributed to the war effort by using his art in the anti-Nazi campaigns. The decision and gamble to move to New York City, a huge roll of the dice by anyone’s estimation, didn’t seem to faze Morrison as he took it all in stride to fulfill his dream.

Soon he was rubbing elbows in an environment created by world politics that had allowed the New York art scene to supersede that of Paris. The mixture of exiled European artists and the prestigious art academy’s finest all blended to create a young artist’s finishing school like no other. Still, his Minnesota roots would again and again reappear in his landscapes. He created mixed media using found items such as driftwood and stones mixed with colors. Morrison himself mused about this period saying, “Surreal elements, images from the subconscious, began to appear in my drawings and painting.”

Modern Spirit chronicles Morrison’s accomplishments, reviewing his numerous shows, life highlights, and extensive teaching résumé. After advancing his career with both his New York life and European travel and influences, he would return to his homeland of Minnesota in the 1970s. Still, Mr. Morrison was not done giving. He taught, shared, and expanded the art horizons of both Minnesota and his students’ minds alike.

This book is a wonderful testament to his craft, even if everyone seemed to fumble over how to classify it. Perhaps had they listened to Morrison himself, his critics would have learned what to type. In his words, he “wasn’t an Indian artist, but rather an artist who happened to be an Indian.”

Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. A recent graduate of CMN, he enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road.