George Morrison was born in 1919 in Grand Marais, Minnesota. He grew up primarily in neighboring Chippewa City, with his family, who were part of the Grand Portage Band of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe). His family was poor, but very loving, and very supportive of his constant desire to create. Morrison spent his early childhood roaming the shores of Lake Superior and creating toys and art out of any object he could find. His first introduction to formal art classes came when he was sent to attend the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Hayward, Wisconsin. After a year in Hayward, a case of tuberculosis in his hip led him to be sent to St. Paul for treatment. While bedridden, he was able to spend all his time reading, learning, and creating art with supplies provided for him by the hospital, solidifying his excitement in learning and love of art.
Morrison finished high school in Grand Marais with his family, excelling in his academic classes and also in his shop classes, where he learned skills, such as woodworking, that he would use throughout his later career. To make money, he learned traditional crafts and sold them to tourists. His artistic abilities were already gaining recognition in his hometown, and upon his graduation from high school, he was given a scholarship by the Consolidated Chippewa Agency to attend the Minneapolis School of Art. While there, he learned traditional artistic techniques and ideas, but was also introduced to newer, more radical ideas about art, such as abstract art and cubism. His instructors encouraged him to express himself in his art. Also while in Minneapolis, Morrison, always full of a voracious desire to learn, took advantage of all the cultural opportunities available to him there, attending lectures, dance performances, and many other things.
After graduation, Morrison received a scholarship to study in New York City, where he spent much of his artistic career. He took classes at the Art Students League, where he was part of a group of radical students, experimenting with new ideas on the forefront of art innovation. His work became increasingly Expressionist during this period, and he began participating in shows and receiving some positive critical reception. It was also during this period that he first traveled to Provincetown, which had a large effect on Morrison and his art. He had always felt connected to large bodies of water, something he attributed to his childhood on Lake Superior, and being in Provincetown provided Morrison with a great deal of inspiration. Horizon lines began appear in his work around this time, a major theme based around these large, powerful bodies of water, which would continue to be important in his work throughout his career.
Morrison began gaining more significant professional success in his last year at the Art Students League, exhibiting his work in major shows alongside important artists at the time. His art was featured throughout the United States to critical success, particularly in his home state of Minnesota. In 1947 he was offered his first teaching position, the first of many throughout his career. His work began to lean more toward abstraction at this time, a concept Morrison defined as “no longer recognizable; completely devoid of any kind of reference to realism or naturalism.” He held his first one-man show in 1948 at Grand Central Moderns. With his growing success came more accolades: he received a Fulbright to study in Europe, where he traveled with his dog and his new wife, Ada, visiting Paris, where he studied at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, along with other parts of France, Italy, and Spain. His work was displayed in Paris, where it received a great deal of positive attention.
While in France, he received the John Hay Whitney Scholarship, which he used to return to Minnesota and paint. This was a tremendously productive period for him, and he spent his time there either in his studio or with family. His work continued to be selected for shows, and his success grew. When he returned to New York in 1954, he and Ada divorced and he threw himself into his painting. He became involved with groups such as the Audubon Artists and the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, and continued showing his work. He rubbed shoulders with the major Abstract Expressionists, and his work began to take on more of those qualities.
While his work gained more critical acclaim, Morrison’s relationship with the press was always complicated. Racism was abundant, and often Morrison felt as if people looked to his identity as a Native American to define him instead of to his art. While he was strongly connected to his culture, he did not make what was understood as “Indian art”—in his words, “I was a painter, and I happened to be Indian. I wasn’t exploiting the idea of being Indian at all, or using Indian themes. But as my work became better known, some critics would pick up on my Indian background, and they’d make something of it. I guess they were looking or a way to understand my work.”
In the early 1960s, Morrison turned to teaching for steady employment. He taught at the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio, where he met his second wife, Hazel. He bounced around the United States, taking semester-long positions, until in 1963 he got a job as a faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design. He and Hazel settled in a historic house in Providence and had a son, Briand. Morrison loved working in Providence, with his love for the ocean providing continued inspiration for him. They continued to summer in Provincetown. He began making forays into sculptural work at this time, creating wood collages from driftwood he found on the beach.
Despite his love for the ocean, Morrison eventually decided it was time to move back home to Minnesota, accepting a visiting professorship at the University of Minnesota in both the American Indian Studies department and in the Art department, where he taught painting. The position soon became permanent, and the Morrisons settled into St. Paul, building a vibrant community around themselves of artists and thinkers. Morrison was additionally very active in the local Anishinaabe community. After his retirement, Morrison moved back up to live on Lake Superior, at Red Rock, where he lived until his death in 2000.
The two sculptures in Fine and Decorative Arts on March 30, 2019 are unique examples of Morrison’s later work. He had begun working in wood in earnest when he returned to Minnesota, and had continued to shift and hone down the way he used the medium. This collage, completed in the 1980s, is the first one ever to come to auction. Its smoothly polished pieces tightly interlock with one another, forming ripples and swirls. Morrison said of his collages that they were “clearly based on landscape.” If the viewer takes a step back, it is easy to imagine this as a landscape, the curves implying hills and rivers, the variants in color reminiscent of topography. The shapes of the pieces suggest that they might continue out of the frame, that this is a map of a limited part of a larger landscape.
Lot 55 is an intriguing mixture of Morrison’s sculpture styles. It is similar in many ways to his Chiringa Forms, which were inspired by aboriginal Australian churinga stones. Morrison understood these as a form of totem, an important motif through his sculptural work. Morrison began creating totems in 1977, and in many ways viewed them as a way to return to his cultural roots with his artwork. Totem means “family mark” in Anishinaabe, and Morrison had viewed his return to Minnesota as a return to his family and his culture, and honored this in his sculpture. His Totems and Chiringa Forms, like this sculpture, remained abstract and focused on shape, but they were tied for him to his re-involvement with his native culture. Additionally, the way the joints in the wood follow the curve of the form bring to mind Morrison’s famous horizon lines, always just vanishing with the curve of the earth.