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Grand Portage artist George Morrison honored with postage stamps

Many of George Morrison’s popular abstract paintings capture the feeling of being along the North Shore of Lake Superior.

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George Morrison poses between two of his paintings in 1997 at Lizzard's Gallery in Duluth. An exhibit at the gallery featured 77 of Morrison's pieces, chronicling six decades of his work. Kathy Strauss / File / Duluth News Tribune

The acclaimed George Morrison — a beloved Minnesota painter known for challenging old ideas of what Native American art should be — will be honored with a postage stamp series that the U.S. Postal Service will release next year.

Morrison was born in 1919 in the since-abandoned village near Grand Marais known as Chippewa City. His pursuit of art, and later, his teachings, landed him in New York, Paris and Rhode Island.

He made a living off his work and could have kept a dapper lifestyle growing old in Greenwich Village, wearing tweed jackets and drinking glasses of French red wine, but he was ready to return home to the North Shore in the 1970s. There, Lake Superior inspired Morrison to make hundreds of small paintings intimately attuned to dusk and dawn, mist and fog, and fiery sunset, said Jackson Rushing, a friend of Morrison’s and an art historian who co-authored “Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison.”

Rushing described those paintings, some of which will be among the five pieces featured in the stamp collection, as a mantra: “I am home again. I am home again.”

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George Morrison outside his home on the Grand Portage Reservation. Contributed / Briand Morrison

“George’s paintings are about being grounded in a particular place, the place from which you come, the place you feel associated with or linked to,” Rushing said. “(M)any people who’ve been to the North Shore and have seen it at sunset or at dawn or in a storm will look at George’s paintings and acknowledge that he captured the feeling of those moments in time in those places. They move people on a deep philosophical level.”

Rushing nominated Morrison for the stamp series and ultimately, selected the pieces that will be featured. He met Morrison at the Heard Museum in Phoenix in 1991, just nine years before Morrison’s death in 2000, and visited his home, Red Rock, on the Grand Portage Reservation.

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George Morrison, who lived from 1919-2000, was a founding artist of Native Modernism. Five of his works will be available as Forever Stamps through the U.S. Postal Service in 2022. Contributed / U.S. Postal Service

“I was really lucky I got to meet George,” Rushing said. “Some artists become important and famous and successful and they’re just a pain … to be around. George was quiet and serious, but not stuffy. He was very gentle and kind. He could be funny with a kind of dry sense of humor. He was a beloved person. … He was just a really special person and everybody knew it.”

Morrison, as well as painter and sculptor, Allan Houser, were among those who broke through barriers confining what Native American art could be and in 2004 both were featured in the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

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George Morrison in St. Paul in the 1970s. Contributed / Briand Morrison

The often unspoken, but prevailing ideas that were defining Indigenous art came from white curators and institutions and were perpetuated by others who bought into the idea, Rushing said. He recalled how in the 1940s Morrison submitted his work to be included in the Philbrook Art Center’s American Indian art exhibition in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but it was rejected and he was told his art wasn’t in the traditional style of his forefathers.

“Certainly there were people, especially if they had any understanding of abstract art, realized that they didn’t have to be in ‘Indian style’ to say, ‘This painting captures an Indigenous spirit,’” Rushing said.

Now, Morrison is known as a founding artist of Native American Modernism and for giving other Indigenous artists a type of freedom to make art without being confined to symbols, storytelling and the styles of their forefathers.

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George Morrison, front, pictured with friend Jeanne Esterbrooks, center, while meeting First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton in 1998 after one of Morrison's works was chosen to be displayed in the White House. Contributed via St. Paul Pioneer Press
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Morrison’s son, Briand Morrison, lives in Red Rock studio with his partner Roxann Berglund. He said he thinks his father would be delighted to know his work would be made into postage stamps.

“It’s a big statement about his art and his life,” Briand said. “It’s a strong indicator that he was a great artist.”

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Briand Morrison
Briand Morrison, jazz musician and son of George Morrison, plays guitar. Contributed / Briand Morrison

Because he grew up on the East Coast, Briand always thought his father’s abstract paintings featuring horizons were of the ocean. It wasn’t until he came to know the North Shore himself that he realized all those paintings were so clearly inspired by Lake Superior.

“The horizon, the water, the sky, all those elements are up here and they’re just burned into your soul,” Briand said.

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George Morrison sits outside for a portrait in Duluth in 1997. Kathy Strauss / File / Duluth News Tribune

He reminisced about what it was like growing up with an eccentric father, like when they moved from the East Coast to Minnesota in 1970, first to St. Paul, where his family bought a Lutheran church, renovated it into a house and painted the front door purple.

Briand said his father grew up in an Ojibwe-speaking household of 12 children until he was taken away to a Native American boarding school, where he was "thoroughly and completely" anglicized. He also contracted tuberculosis while at the boarding school, leaving him with a removed hip bone and in a full-body cast for a year.

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Because boarding school effectively stripped his father of his culture, Briand said he wasn't raised with any Anishinaabe values until the 1970s, when the American Indian Movement began shifting how Indigenous people were treated.
It was around that time that George moved away from not wanting to be identified as an Indigenous artist, but an artist who was Native American.

"It's only in the '70s that George starts to acknowledge with himself and with his audience that there might be something to the notion to these paintings he's made represent Indian art," Rushing said.

George Morrison's collection of Forever Stamps will be issued in 2022 and available at post office locations. The Postal Service will host a ceremony in Minnesota to celebrate the launch of the stamps. Information about the event will be available at a later date.

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