George Morrison had been away from Minnesota for several years when he and his wife, fellow painter Hazel Belvo, moved back in 1970.
Inside her light-filled painting studio near Minneapolis, Belvo recalls memories of artist Morrison with a gentle smile.
“I think that in his heart, George never left Minnesota,” said Belvo. “I think he never left the big lake, in his heart.”
The “big lake” is Gichigami, or Lake Superior, and is prominently featured in much of Morrison’s artwork. Morrison’s work and legacy are now being honored at the University of Minnesota.
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The Department of American Indian Studies and the Department of Art have created the George Morrison Center for Indigenous Arts, which now serves as an “interdepartmental study center to support the creation, presentation and interpretation of Indigenous art in all its forms.”
Morrison was part of a leading generation of American artists working as abstract expressionists.
A central artistic element in Morrison’s work is the horizon, inspired by Lake Superior. Many attribute Morrison’s use of the horizon line to his upbringing along the North Shore.
Before returning home to Minnesota, Belvo and Morrison had been living and working in Providence, Rhode Island, where Morrison taught at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Belvo remembers the commitment Morrison made to his students at the prestigious art school. She recalls Morrison and another professor worked to innovate a scholarship program to support Native students, many of whom were far from home.
“Instead of giving a scholarship every year or two scholarships a year, they gave, I think it was eight students, eight Native students, scholarships for four years,” said Belvo. “And they all stayed, because they had a community.”
Morrison brought back that community insight to the University of Minnesota, according to Belvo.
Morrison, Belvo and their young son moved Minnesota when Morrison accepted a teaching position at the university in Studio Arts and American Indian Studies.
Novelist Gerald Vizenor was a print reporter in the early 1970s when he interviewed Morrison in St. Paul. They spoke inside the large church Morrison and Belvo had converted into a studio and a home.
“These large canvases and the scent of paint created this incredible kind of quiet or silence of imagination and motion,” said Vizenor.
“Because of the way he painted abstract images, and the colors he used, created in my perception, a sense of motion. I further interpreted that as a natural motion, or an abstract natural motion that comes out of his experience.”
Vizenor himself would later join the American Indian Studies department at the University of Minnesota.
Artist Wendy Savage has worked as an independent curator specializing in American Indian Art for the past several decades. Savage credits Morrison with fostering a vibrant community of Native American artists in Minnesota beginning in the 1970s.
Savage says as a painter and as an arts professor, Morrison helped create the Ojibwe Arts Expo, a traveling exhibit of works by Ojibwe artists from across the state.
“We encouraged a lot of young people to also become artists and work in the Native arts,” Savage said. “This show went on every year, and people started getting the following. And so, it also exposed a lot of the public that generally wouldn’t see Native American artwork anywhere.”
Savage has archived her copies of several Ojibwe Arts Expo catalogues. She flips to a small black and white photo of artists and curators, which includes Morrison.
“I look at that crew, and I look at a bunch of dedicated people that for years and years were dedicated to Native American art at a very difficult time back in the early 70s.”
Savage points out that many of the artists whose work was exhibited in the art expos were students of Morrison’s.
“Painters that he assisted like Jeffrey Chapman, Steve Premo, Frank Big Bear. I mean, these are big, top-notch people now.” said Savage. “Getting into galleries was different. [It was] difficult back then. But he would [assist] his young students and say, ‘You really need to start looking at this artist’s work.’”
Morrison moved back to Grand Portage toward the end of his life. Savage would drive up the North Shore to visit him at his studio.
“I was bringing a little gift and he always enjoyed maple syrup. And partridge-wild rice soup,” remembers Savage. “Yep. It’s like chicken noodle soup only made with wild rice and partridge. And he liked homemade bread. He liked that.”