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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

The late Ojibwe artist George Morrison — a founding figure of Native American modernism — has been honored with a pane of U.S. postage stamps featuring his vibrant abstract landscapes drawn from childhood memories and a deep connection to the natural world.

Born in 1919 in Chippewa City, Minnesota, Morrison was a citizen of the Grand Portage Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. His Ojibwe name was Wah Wah Teh Go Nay Ga Bo (Standing In the Northern Lights). He died in 2000.

“I seek the power of the rock, the magic of the water, the religion of the tree, the color of the wind, and the enigma of the horizon,” he said of his artwork in the book, “Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison.”

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His works drew from a variety of influences, including Cubism, Surrealism and abstract expressionism, and he often featured landscapes and mosaic patterns in his paintings.

After studying in France in the 1950s, he moved to New York where he became acquainted with prominent American expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock.

He had 12 solo shows in New York between 1948 and 1960, though he never found the same degree of success as his peers. By his own reasoning, Morrison’s work wasn’t “Indian enough,” he said, and he was passed over for many juried exhibitions of Native art.

(Related: Alaska Native artist creates stamp for Postal Service)

Eventually, in 1968, Morrison won the grand prize at the Fourth Invitational Exhibition of Indian Arts and Crafts.

His work is now in collections across the United States, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Learning to draw

Born in 1919, Morrison was one of 12 children from a poor household. His father was a trapper who, because of his fluent knowledge of the Ojibwe language, also served as an interpreter for court proceedings.

Morrison began to draw as a child while spending months in a full body cast recovering from surgery.

He briefly attended boarding school in Hayward, Wisconsin, but was sent home because of poor health. He attended the Minnesota School of Art, graduating in 1943.

After receiving the Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Traveling Scholarship, Morrison went to study at the Art Students League in New York City from 1943-1946, becoming part of a circle of abstract expressionists who used Cubism and Surrealism in their art.

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In 1947, Morrison began teaching at the Cape Ann Art School. The following summer Morrison and fellow artist Albert Kresch took over the school and renamed it the Rockport Art School. Morrison met his first wife, Ada Reed, there and they married in 1948.

In 1952, he studied in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He then returned to the U.S., moving to Duluth, Minnesota, and then to New York City in 1954.

He taught at various universities, including Cornell University, the Dayton Art Institute, Penn State and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Starting in 1970, he taught American Indian studies and art in Minnesota until he retired to Lake Superior. He lived out his days with a home and studio he and his wife named Red Rock. He died in April 2000.

Where sky and water meet

While Morrison’s art may seem spontaneous, each work is carefully organized. Many of his works feature a prominent horizon line inspired by his childhood on the shore of Lake Superior.

Representing the space where sky and water meet, the horizon line creates the boundary between the known and unknown, an eternal mystery that Morrison repeatedly explored as he continued to refine his modernist vision.

The sheet of 20 Forever stamps includes five of Morrison’s abstract works, including several Lake Superior landscapes:

  • "Sun and River,” (1949), a watercolor and crayon work on paper that is part of the collection of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota.
  • “Phenomena Against the Crimson: Lake Superior Landscape,” (1985), acrylic on canvas, part of the collection of the Minnesota Museum of American Art.
  • “Lake Superior Landscape” (1981), acrylic on canvas, which is part of the Minneapolis Institute of Art's collection.
  • “Spirit Path, New Day, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape,” (1990), acrylic and pastel on paper, which is also part of the collection of the Minnesota Museum of American Art.
  • And a final piece, "Untitled,” (1995), color pencil on paper, from a private collection.

Antonio Alcalá served as art director and designer for the pane of stamps. The George Morrison stamps are being issued as Forever stamps, which are equal in value to the current rate for one ounce of first-class mail.

For more info
The George Morrison stamps are available at the U.S. Postal Service. A sheet of 20 stamps is $11.60.

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