Daffy over Daphne: One of the 'Indian Group of Seven'
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Daffy over Daphne
One of the 'Indian Group of Seven,' painter Odjig is at Yorkville's Gallery
By MIKE STROBEL
Confessions of a Daphne Odjig groupie ...
It is healthy, I think, to expand your cultural horizons beyond hockey
pools, draft beer and dancing girls.
At least once in a while.
For me, that means native art. Or Indian art or aboriginal art or woodlands
art or First Nations art, Anishinabe art or whatever you call it these
I bet you didn't know there was even an Indian Group of Seven, brief but
bright, in the 1970s.
Norval Morrisseau was the brilliant bad boy of the group. Very bad.
Norval never met a substance he didn't abuse.
Here in the Big Smoke, he got mixed up with the Mob, sold his paintings for
a bottle, partied night and day and was a general rascal and reprobate.
So, naturally, the press lapped him up. Made him famous. We love a rogue.
When he died at 75 (or was it 76?) at Toronto General last December it was
front page news across Canada.
Then there's Odjig, the only woman of the seven.
My heroine. So much so that, like a good little groupie, I just spent three
days stalking her around the GTA, as she opened exhibits and accepted
So much so that I have made pilgrimages to her childhood home across from
the pow-wow grounds at Wikwemikong, a reserve on Manitoulin Island.
You might think that's kind of weird.
Tough. I like her and I like her art, with its vibrant colour and haunting
Odjig is the yin to Morrisseau's yang, pure as the driven snow that will
soon wrap Wikwemikong, where she was born 89 years ago.
Well, not too pure.
"Sex," she says when smiling for the camera. She flirts like a schoolgirl.
She's been known to play the slots.
Thirty years ago she illustrated Tales from the Smokehouse, a book of
Few of those paintings could appear in a family newspaper, but the
originals sell for $50,000 each. The book has a sort of cult status.
So Odjig, whose dad was Potawatomi, her mom an English war bride, is no
Nor is she "precious" and self-important, like so many in the art-world.
Compared to Morrisseau, well, she's a saint.
Like Norval, Daphne fled the north for Toronto. But she worked. She made
Colt-Browning machineguns for World War II. She toiled at Dr. Ballard's pet
food plant and at Planters Peanuts. She waited tables.
True, she partied. But not Morrisseau style. She got dressed up and
jitterbugged at the Palais Royale and Casa Loma.
"I was just this little Indian girl trying to be a white girl," Odjig tells
We're at the Ontario College of Art and Design, off Dundas St. W. students
arrayed like disciples at her feet.
They have just given her an honorary degree. Yet another. To go with her
Order of Canada and last year's Governor General's Award and a drawer full
of other ribbons, medals and citations.
An overnight success. After 60 years. It took Morrisseau about 60 minutes.
"Maybe I should have been a streetwalker in downtown Vancouver," Odjig
says, with a twinkle in her deep brown eyes. "Might have got more
Maybe. But Odjig's work now outsells Morrisseau's. For one thing, there's
never any doubt who painted it.
She is arguably among Canada's three greatest women artists, with Emily
Carr and Doris McCarthy.
"She has the same charisma and courage Picasso had," says gallery director
"They weren't afraid to try different styles, but you can always tell their
Odjig paints no more. Arthritis is a harsh critic.
OPENING TWO SHOWS
She's in town from her longtime home in Kelowna to open two shows -- a
major retrospective at the McMichael Collection in Kleinberg and a smaller
exhibit at Gallery Gevik in Yorkville.
In the past two years, her popularity has exploded, including two
travelling shows with stints coming up at the National Gallery of Canada
and in the States.
"It's taken a while," she says, leaning heavily on her cane. "But I'm
grateful and humbled by it all. I think of some of the greatest who never
lived to see the fruits of their efforts."
Three members of the Indian Group of Seven died young, including Carl Ray
at the point of a knife.
"Sometimes," says Odjig, "I wonder, 'Why me?'
"I always felt that I was given a gift and it was up to me to use it."
Her voice is as deep as her eyes.
"I'm an Indian artist and I'm proud of that. I'm proud to be Potawatomi.
"But I'm a Canadian artist, always, who happens to be First Nations. Why
should there be a distinction?"
Beats me, Daphne.
I'm just a groupie.