Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

fishing

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fishing

I haven't done this in a while, but I used to like going fishing in the Toronto Public Library system. Whenever I was passing a small branch library and had the time to spend, I'd check out the shelves to see what they might have that I might find of use. (This is similar to my habit of scouring used bookstores, but — even with the odd late fee — much more affordable.) I find that small libraries have the most idiosyncratic collections and I like the surprise of seeing which books catch my eye. This is how I discovered the work of Norval Morrisseau.

A couple years ago I slipped into the Deer Park Library between appointments and drifted over to the art section. I'd been to this branch a number of times, but I'd always focused on the poetry and theology sections. Immediately a brightly coloured spine jumped out at me and I pulled it out: it was a book on the work of Norval Morrisseau, also known as Copper Thunderbird, an Aboriginal Canadian painter. I'd never heard of him before, but I recognized the style; Morrisseau founded the Woodlands School of Canadian art, and I'd seen examples of this school on everything from herbal tea boxes to murals to record covers.

The imagery in his own work, however, is peerless. A shaman who broke tradition when he chose to paint the sacred stories his grandfather had shared with him as a boy, Morrisseau made work that, even in reproduction, vibrates and shakes with the rhythms of his use of colour and line. His best work is some of the best work I've seen, period.

I quickly became obsessed with Morrisseau. His personal story is fascinating and I read as much as I could find about him online and in other books in the library and bookstores. I told a friend about how much his work had come to mean to me. She called me the next day (December 4, 2007) to say she'd just heard on the radio that he had died that day in a Toronto hospital.

Like Joseph Cornell (another favourite artist of mine and one who used to go fishing in the thrift stores on 4th Avenue in the Manhattan of the thirties), Morrisseau saw his work as a tool for healing — not just for himself, but for all those who looked at his pictures and who let the organizing principles in the compositions enter their consciousness. When I was in Banff finishing my book, I found another book of his work that brought me even deeper into what he accomplished. It was called The Art of Norval Morrisseau by Lister Sinclair and Jack Pollack (Morrisseau's art dealer), published in 1979. It's a beautiful hardcover book with illustrated end-papers and it has his signature in Cree syllabics embossed into the cloth cover. I had it open on my desk the whole time I was in the mountains, reading it cover to cover and poring over the paintings themselves. It was hard to give it back when I left, but I was also happy that it was there for others to enjoy.

Yesterday I dropped into the Monkey's Paw for the first time in months and almost immediately after I walked in the door, the spine of The Art of Norval Morrisseau jumped out at me. It's a pretty rare book, so I kind of couldn't believe it. So of course, I have to buy it; I'm going to get it as a gift to myself to celebrate my book coming out on Tuesday.

I share this mainly just to encourage people to pursue their obsessions with an open mind in whatever places make the most sense for them (libraries, bookstores, You Tube, rock clubs, public gardens...). Whenever I feel bored or listless or overly distracted, I find this is always the best cure.

Go fish.

IN ACTUAL NEWS:

I thought this was a very beautiful memorial by Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman for the poet Craig Arnold, who disappeared while exploring a volcano on a Japanese island six months ago. I think it really illustrates the importance of friendship among poets. (I clearly remember when the magazine published Arnold's poem "Hot," which Wiman quotes from here. I think of it whenever I go very crazy with the hot sauce. Which is often.)

And I'm finally going to see Neon Nightz at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre tonight. Alex Tigchelaar/Sasha Van Bon Bon is a good friend of mine and I think she's a great writer — she is able to be both hilarious and quite vulnerable and that's a painfully difficult thing to pull off. I saw and loved an earlier production of this show and I'm excited to see how it's changed. It closes tomorrow night, so get in while you can.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Damian Rogers

Damian Rogers lives in Toronto. Paper Radio (ECW Press) is her first book.

Go to Damian Rogers’s Author Page