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Minnesota modernist George Morrison was totally committed to art as a way of life

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Morrison and Hazel Belvo, 1976. Photograph by Victor Bloomfield.

George Morrison, one of Minnesota’s most important artists, is best known for his landscape paintings and wood collages. He drew inspiration from nature, combining impressionism with expressionism, cubism, and surrealism to develop a uniquely textured style. He referred to himself as a formalist in his approach to art.

Morrison’s artwork rarely includes overt references to his Ojibwe heritage. Therefore, he is not defined solely as an American Indian artist. Resistant to being labeled, he described himself as a painter who happened to be Indian. At the same time, Morrison’s prolific art often reflects a respectful connection to Ojibwe culture.

Born in 1919 on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation in Chippewa City, Morrison was one of twelve children in a close-knit family. He spoke only Anishinaabemowin until he was about six years old, when he learned English in school. Along with his brother Bernard, Morrison was eventually sent to Hayward Indian Boarding School in Wisconsin.

When he was ten, Morrison left Hayward and underwent surgery to treat tuberculosis of his left hip. To pass the time during his fourteen-month recovery in the hospital—including eight months with both legs in casts—Morrison took up reading, drawing, and carving.

Throughout his early education, Morrison’s teachers recognized and nurtured his extraordinary talents. His work led to a tribal scholarship to study commercial art at the Minneapolis School of Art (later the Minneapolis College of Art and Design). During Morrison’s time at college, from 1938 to 1943, he discovered that fine art held a greater appeal for him. Soon, he started developing an artistic sensibility as a modernist painter.

Upon graduating from the Minneapolis School of Art, Morrison received the prestigious Van Derlip Traveling Scholarship for the Art Students League (ASL) in New York, where he studied from 1943 to 1946. In New York, Morrison was regarded for his sophisticated tastes in art, literature, travel, culture, and jazz. He was fully immersed in the modern art community and his exhibits were well received by critics and artists alike.

In 1952, Morrison received a Fulbright scholarship. He continued his studies in Paris and Antibes, France. Upon finishing the Fulbright, Morrison received a fellowship from the John Hay Whitney Foundation. This afforded him the opportunity to work in Duluth, close to his family.

Morrison returned to New York in 1954 and became acquainted with influential American expressionists: Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollack, and Franz Kline. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Morrison lived in cities in the Midwest and on the East Coast, including New York, Providence, and the Cape Cod art community of Provincetown. In Provincetown, Morrison gathered driftwood along the beaches to use in the creation of horizontal mosaic reliefs, which became highly sought after by collectors and galleries.

In 1960, he met his future wife, artist Hazel Belvo, at the Dayton Art Institute. Morrison and Belvo had one son together, Briand, and raised him with Belvo’s two other sons in artist communities. According to Belvo, the family was totally committed to art as a way of life.

Morrison taught art at various colleges, including Cornell, Dayton Art Institute, Rhode Island School of Design, and Pennsylvania State University. In 1970, he took a position at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he taught American Indian studies and art.

In the mid-1970s, Morrison and his family built a home with an art studio on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation on Lake Superior, naming it Red Rock for the jasper in the nearby bluffs. This period marks a shift in Morrison’s art back to his Ojibwe roots and the nature surrounding him, as is seen in many of his horizon-line landscape paintings.

After Morrison retired from teaching in 1983, he moved permanently to Red Rock. There, he continued to work prolifically throughout the 1980s and 1990s, despite numerous health problems. He and Belvo divorced in 1993 but remained close.

By the early 1990s, Morrison was recognized as a founder of Native modernism. In 1999, he received a Master Artist Award from the Eiteljorg Museum Fellowship for Native American Fine Art.

Morrison continued to work at Red Rock until his death in April 2000, at the age of eighty.

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