Member of iconic Canadian rock band the Barenaked Ladies and Lou Reed’s long time musical director, Kevin Hearn is an avid collector of Canadian art and, in particular, the work of Norval Morrisseau. He purchased Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, allegedly a work by Morrisseau, in 2007 from the tony Yorkville Maslak McLeod Gallery. After questions were raised about the authenticity of the painting, Kevin began to doubt its provenance, and sued the gallery that sold it to him. His decade long investigation into the provenance of the painting culminated last year in a highly publicized trial, which led to a mixed result. Hearn is appealing the decision, which will be heard in April 2019.
One of our most widely known and most important Canadian artists, Morrisseau was born in 1931 in the Sand Point reserve near Beardmore, Ont. Called the “Picasso of the North,” Morrisseau is credited with establishing an entire movement of Indigenous art, now called the Woodland School, characterized by thick black lines, vivid colours and spiritual themes. Achieving a great deal of acclaim and success in the 1960s, Morrisseau also became notorious for his hard partying lifestyle, including alcoholism, homosexuality and drug abuse, briefly living on the streets of Vancouver in the 1980s. He lived in the Thunder Bay area for most of his life, but in his final years settled in Nanaimo, BC, under the care of his adoptive son Gabe Vadas. With the support of Vadas and other friends and supporters, in his final years, while battling Parkinson’s disease, Morrisseau attempted to discredit hundreds of works being passed off as his, which he identified as fakes, in galleries across the country.
Hearn’s lawyer in the action against McLeod, Sommer became embroiled in the Morrisseau fakes controversy when a lawyer named Zak Muskovitch retained him in relation to a lawsuit between Ritchie Sinclair and Joe Otavnik – Otavnik had not only sued Sinclair, but Sinclair’s lawyer Muscovitch as well. 10 years on, Sommer has been involved in X number of actions involving the disputed Morrisseau paintings, including ongoing harassment and defamation actions against John and Joan Goldi, the authors of the website TheMorrisseauHoaxExposedBlog.com.
One of Norval’s seven children, Christian is an established artist in the Woodlands tradition in his own right. His work is represented and sold exclusively by Auction Network, a Canadian company owned by Jim White. In 2009, Christian’s teenage son Kyle tragically drowned under suspicious circumstances while attending high school in Thunder Bay. Kyle is one of seven students from remote First Nations communities who died while attending Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, between 2000 and 2014. Their deaths were the basis of one of the largest inquests in Ontario’s history, the Seven Youth Inquest.
Born and bred in Thunder Bay, Sinclair was a protégé of Morrisseau’s in the 1970s, and the controversial author of the website www. morrisseau.com, which rejected the notion that Norval ever signed and dated the backs of his works in black dry brush, and called out hundreds of specific paintings, many of which were housed in reputable Canadian galleries, as fakes. He has been embroiled in litigation with various galleries and Morrisseau collectors ever since.
Owner of the former Maslak McLeod Gallery, which specialized in Woodlands School and Indigenous art, McLeod sold Spirit Energy of Mother Earth to Kevin Hearn, which he had acquired at one of Randy Potter’s auctions. A vocal proponent of the authenticity of Morrisseau black dry brush paintings (“BDPs”), McLeod passed away in 2017, shortly before the Hearn trial began.
A Toronto-based entrepreneur and art dealer, Jim White owns over 200 Morrisseau BDPs, purchased mostly through Potter Auctions and Gary Lamont. In a previous court case White valued his collection of Morrisseau BDPs at more than $2.5 million. In December 2017, on the eve of the Hearn trial (which, in the wake of McLeod’s death, was set to proceed undefended), White was granted intervener status (permission to represent the defence position at trial).
Litigious collector of Morrisseau BDPs, Otavnik has been involved in more than 20 lawsuits against various players in the Woodlands School art scene, including, at one point, Morrisseau himself, for claiming that one of his paintings was fake. Otavnik has also been charged with criminal harassment. A friend of the late Joe McLeod, the late Randy Potter, John and Joan Goldi, Otavnik lives in mother’s basement in Oshawa.
Former autoworker turned auctioneer, owner of Randy Potter Auctions and Wing It Restaurant in Oshawa, Potter was the largest distributor of Morrisseau BDP pieces in the late 1990s and early aughts. His auctions were frequented by collectors and gallerists including McLeod, Robinson and Otavnik. The trove of Morrisseau BDP paintings he sold at auction, according to Potter, came from a shadowy Thunder Bay area resident named David Voss. This is disputed by Dallas Thompson, who contends that Potter Auctions was one of the main clients of Gary Lamont. Potter died in 2017.
Owner of the Kinsman Robinson gallery in Yorkville, which has represented Morrisseau’s work in Toronto since XX. Longtime friend of Morrisseau and vocal advocate against the authenticity of alleged Morrisseau paintings signed on the back in black dry brush paint (“BDPs”).
Dr. Carmen Robertson
Professor and Canada Research Chair in North American Art and Material Culture at Carleton University, Robertson is an expert on Norval Morrisseau, having recently published both Norval Morrisseau: Art and Life (Art Canada Institute) and Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau: Art and the Colonial Narrative in the Canadian Media (University of Manitoba Press). Robertson was a founding member of the NMHS (see Dr. Ruth Phillips below), and has provided expert testimony in several Morrisseau BDP cases, including Hearn v. McLeod. Dr. Robertson is a member of the Lakota nation.
Greg Hill is an artist, the Audain Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and an expert on Norval Morrisseau. A member of the Kanyen’kehaka First Nation of the Grand River Territory, Hill was also a founding member of the NMHS, assisting Morrisseau to identify fakes in the years leading up to his death.
Dr. Gerald McMaster
Professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Visual Culture and Curatorial Practice at OCAD, former AGO curator of Canadian art, Dr. McMaster was the first to raise questions about the authenticity of Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, when the painting was included in an AGO exhibition guest curated by Hearn in XX. Dr. McMaster is a member of the Siksika First Nation.
Dr. Ruth Phillips
Professor and Canada Research Chair of Modern Culture at Carleton University, specializing in North American Indigenous art, Dr. Phillips founded the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society, which helped Morrisseau identify and disclaim forgeries of his work in the years leading up to his death.
Morrisseau met Vadas in the brief period while he was living on the streets of Vancouver in the 1980s. Vadas was a close friend, caregiver and manager to him for the rest of his life, eventually being formally adopted as Morrisseau’s son. After settling with his wife, Michelle Vadas, and Morrisseau in Nanaimo, BC, in the final years of Morrisseau’s life Vadas was instrumental in assisting the artist to disclaim the authenticity of hundreds of paintings at galleries across Canada being sold as authentic Morrisseaus. Vadas still resides in Nanaimo, and is the executor of the Morrisseau estate.
A well-known Toronto-based lawyer, Shiller has successfully represented several art galleries, gallerists and collectors in the pro-BDP camp. He represented McLeod and the Maslak McLeod Gallery in the Hearn case for several years, before leaving the case on the basis of McLeod’s impecuniosity, and then shortly thereafter, his death.
A brutal Thunder Bay area gangster, Lamont first gained notoriety as a suspect in the highly publicized, but ultimately unsolved Scott Dove murder case in 1984. Lamont fell in with a group of bikers, and became one of Thunder Bay’s biggest drug dealers. A family friend of Morrisseau’s, Lamont later started hiring local Woodland School artists to produce paintings in the style of Morrisseau, often paying them in alcohol and drugs, and selling the paintings as authentic Morrisseaus to dealers and galleries across Canada. His trade in fake Morrisseau paintings eventually eclipsed the drug dealing. In 2016, Lamont agreed to a plea deal, and was sentenced to serve five years for the sexual assault of five men between 1993 and 2007.
A Thunder Bay-based Woodlands School artist, Tim Tait regularly bought drugs from Lamont before Lamont started “buying” his work in exchange for his fix. Tait claims he was not aware that Lamont was passing his work off as Morrisseau’s, and only discovered later that Morrisseau’s signature had been applied to various pieces he sold to Lamont. Tait has been sober for several years now. He lives in Thunder Bay with his wife and kids.
Norval’s nephew, and a well-known Thunder Bay area Woodlands School artist. Accused by Amanda Dalby, Dallas Thompson and Tim Tait of being one of the main artists producing fake Morrisseaus for Gary Lamont, Benji denies any involvement in the fraud ring.
Artist, art dealer and owner of the Coghlan Art Gallery in British Columbia, Ross was a close friend of Morrisseau’s and a vocal advocate against the dissemination of fake Morrisseau paintings. He infamously and publicly defaced an alleged Morrisseau with an enormous red X, in order to make the statement that the painting was worthless and inauthentic.
The niece of Lamont’s common law wife, as a child Dalby lived with her mother and sister in Lamont’s house for a number of years. During that time she witnessed Lamont’s criminal operations first hand, including the production of fakes Morrisseau paintings. Dalby was the sole female complainant against Lamont in the criminal proceedings against him (for which he is currently in jail). She was married last summer and now lives in the greater Toronto area.
Born and raised in Thunder Bay with Anishnaabe roots, as a teenager Thompson fell in with notorious local gangster Gary Lamont, first as a customer, purchasing drugs from him, and then later becoming his right hand, assisting in the production and sale of fake Morrisseau paintings. Thompson was physically and sexually assaulted by Lamont repeatedly over a two year period, eventually becoming the lead complainant in the aggravated sexual assault charges against Lamont, for which he is currently serving a 5 year sentence. Thompson still lives in Thunder Bay, with his wife and two children.