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Female First Nations artists carve their way into the spotlight

Indigenous art

'Our women have always carved'

First Nations artists Ellen Neel and Susan Pointe are being celebrated for their accomplishments for women in indigenous art at separate exhibitions in British Columbia. This is Ellen Neel’s Dzonaqua Mask, made in 1962 from carved red cedar.

As Marsha Lederman writes, new exhibitions on Ellen Neel and Susan Point are starting conversations about women in aboriginal art

On the West Coast, in the rich and diverse world of First Nations art, the master carvers responsible for the totem poles and myriad other monumental works are usually men.

There are exceptions. And two exceptional women – trailblazing female First Nations artists who have carved their way into Canadian cultural history – are getting their due in two new exhibitions. Pioneering Kwakwaka'wakw carver Ellen Neel is being celebrated at a show in Victoria, 50 years after her death. And Musqueam artist Susan Point has a comprehensive, magnificent solo show opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery this weekend.

It wasn't planned, but having these two shows mounted at the same time on the West Coast is notable and meaningful. "As we have come to recognize indigenous art more, the emphasis has been largely on men. And I think it's really important that we call forward the names of indigenous women," said Carolyn Butler Palmer, the curator of the exhibition Ellen Neel: The First Woman Totem Pole Carver.

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Eagle Design by artist Ellen Neel.

The name of the Neel show, at the University of Victoria's Legacy Art Gallery Downtown, is intentionally provocative, its organizers say. It's meant to draw out other stories of female indigenous carvers who would have been forced to work underground, along with their male counterparts, during the dark years of the potlatch ban.

"It's really a colonial idea that our women didn't carve. Our women have always carved," said Lou-ann Neel, the carver's granddaughter and an advising curator for the exhibition. "I've already heard a few people say, 'Well, you know, our grandmother was also a carver.' Good, I want to hear about her. Let's talk about her, too. Because all of our communities need these role models to come from the last couple of generations and encourage our young girls and women to pursue the arts, too."

Neel was born in Alert Bay, B.C., in 1916 and died in 1966 – the exhibition commemorates both the 100th anniversary of her birth and the 50th anniversary of her death. Her grandfather Charlie James taught her to carve, and both artists have totem poles at Stanley Park (although the one by James deteriorated, so a replica carved by Tony Hunt was installed instead).

Neel moved to Vancouver in 1943 with her husband. When he became ill, feeding their large family fell to Neel. Her art became the family's bread and butter.

She eventually set up shop in an old military bunker in Stanley Park, the Totem Arts Shop. There, she taught her children the craft and put them to work in what became a family enterprise.

Ellen Neel also designed Totemware ceramics.

She was an early and strong believer in bringing traditional design into contemporary clothing and objects and saw the potential of the commercial application of First Nations art.

"I believe it can be used with stunning effect on tapestry, textiles, sportswear and in jewellery. Small pieces of furniture lend themselves admirably to the Indian designs," Neel said in a speech at the B.C. Arts and Welfare Society Conference at the University of British Columbia in 1948.

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In addition to monumental and mid-sized totem poles, she turned out small ones, masks and other decorative and useful items – coasters, placemats, ashtrays – that catered to the tourist trade. She was commissioned by the Royal Albert china company to create Totem Ware ceramics and made wearable art such as scarves, bags and blouses.

She also designed the famous Totemland Pole, a commission from a tourism organization, and made hundreds of them. They were awarded to employees of the year and given to visiting dignitaries, dispatched around the globe in suitcases belonging to the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope.

"My uncle Bob used to say," said Lou-ann Neel, "and he'd say it every time I went to see him: 'I really think people should get up and face the sun every morning and thank God for Ellen Neel. Because she's the one who made it possible for them to go to market with their products.'"

The show, in an intimate space, features a variety of items, including her final work: a pair of clip-on earrings (now made into a brooch and pendant) that she made in the hospital.

Ellen Neel’s ͞The Wonderbird͟ pole, made in 1953, carved and painted from red cedar.

Probably the most unusual item in the show is a work she created for the White Spot restaurant chain: a totem pole topped not by a thunderbird, but a white rooster with outstretched feathers. The Wonderbird Totem, made in 1953, was first installed at a White Spot restaurant (it's now at company headquarters), and its image appeared on menus, along with the legend of the Wonderbird, which Neel also wrote. "In the beginning, the men of the Pacific Coast were brown men and the totems were brown totems made of brown wood. With the coming of the white men came other white things also and among these white things was a white rooster," it begins.

The show also features works by Neel's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including two remarkable masks by grandson David A. Neel, Mask of Ellen Neel (1990) and Mask of the Injustice System (1991). He is also an advising curator for the show and has said the thing he remembers most clearly about his grandmother is that she smelled of cedar.

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"She made art and that was really important. But what she also made was this living legacy that continues on for … generations," said Butler Palmer, the Williams Legacy Chair at the department of art history and visual studies at UVic. "She resonates in the descendants across generations and in their work across generations."

Susan Point did not start making art until well into adulthood. She was 28 in 1981 when she signed up for a course at Vancouver Community College while on maternity leave from her position as a legal secretary with a First Nations organization. What she thought could turn into a hobby became a calling, awakening in her an intense desire to know more about Coast Salish art.

From the Susan Point exhibition.

She met with family members and visited and wrote to museums in those preInternet days. "I wanted to understand – wow, we have our own art style?" she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail last week.

In April of that same year, sitting at her kitchen table, Point made her first print. Salmon is one of the more than 130 works in Susan Point: Spindle Whorl, which opened over the weekend at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It's the largest exhibition of her work and her first solo show in British Columbia since 1986.

"We felt it was important if we were going to do another solo First Nations exhibition, how about doing a woman?" co-curator Ian Thom said. "She is for all practical purposes the person that reinvented Coast Salish art."

From the Susan Point exhibition.

Point was able to quit her job when she began carving. "Getting into wood in 1990 was a challenge because not many women were carving on a large scale," she said. She learned the basics, and her attraction to the medium was instant. "I love working in cedar because it's meditative and I love the smell."

Still, she expanded to other materials. She is considered the first Northwest Coast artist to work in glass and one of the first to work in resin.

"She had so much going against her," Thom said. "A., she was Musqueam, where there wasn't a huge Musqueam carving tradition that was available to look at. B., she was a woman. And C., she came to this relatively late in her life. She didn't start when she was 12. What we hope the show will reveal is just the incredible range of activity that she's done and her willingness to constantly reinvent herself."

Despite her late start, Point's achievements are phenomenal. While Neel was able to feed her family – and gain some recognition at the time – with the work she churned out, Point, 50 years later, has achieved unimaginable commercial success and art-world fame.

She has been awarded major public commissions – you can see her work in the Stanley Park gateways and at Vancouver International Airport – and she created magnificent stained-glass windows for Vancouver's Christ Church Cathedral.

She had a carving pavilion during the 2010 Olympics. She has received a long list of accolades, including the Order of Canada and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. And all four of her children have become artists.

On the Musqueam reserve – which is in Vancouver – Point would not have been exposed to totem poles, and masks are sacred in Coast Salish culture so not generally seen. Her exposure to the spindle whorl was key. It is a tool traditionally used by Coast Salish women to prepare wool for garment making, including ceremonial blankets. It consists of a small disc – usually wood, often carved – with a rod through the centre. It is the heart of her practice.

"When I first started and prior to that, everyone was so used to the northern style, and that's what they thought native art was. I mean, I even thought that," Point said. Her brothers carved in the more familiar Pacific Northwest style. So did a cousin. Then she showed him the spindle whorl. "He said: That's not native art. And I said: Yes it is. But because he was doing it for so long, the northern style, he couldn't comprehend the fact that we did have our own style."

Point has consistently used the spindle whorl as a starting point in her work, using a wide variety of materials and forms. Walking through the show, one can see how the motif repeats – yet with glorious originality.

The show features a number of pieces that are either new or installed in new configurations, such as the magnificent People of the Earth, five cast-paper dual-coloured faces in a circular arrangement made in 1998 and installed against a new wooden framework. Her Orca Pod (1997) has been installed with the woven glass waves of Salish Weave (2014) and the carved cedar Salish Moon (2016), essentially creating a new work.

"Once we decided to do this show, there was an absolute burst of activity and she did a whole range of things," Thom said, pointing to the final gallery, where nine new circular sculptures have been installed on one wall.

On a nearby wall, a series of 120 digital prints represents a new area for Point, who shot images with her iPhone and manipulated them to varying degrees.

The rotunda features a tree grate from Seattle with a large, red-cedar basket with a bronze lid in the centre. The works inside the show include a Vancouver manhole cover and a large drum.

"Again, who would have thought: a First Nations woman, Musqueam, making a gigantic, four-foot drum," Thom said.

Everything in Point's work has meaning – and that includes the show's layout. At her request, the false walls on one side of the exhibition have been arranged in the shape of an eagle, one of her family symbols.

Walking through the exhibition while it was still being installed this week, Point said it was never her intention to aim for this kind of show or this level of fame.

"The challenges were never-ending," she said. "I never thought I'd get to where I am today."

Ellen Neel: The First Woman Totem Pole Carver is at UVic's Legacy Art Gallery Downtown in Victoria until April 1. Susan Point: Spindle Whorl is at the VAG until May 28.

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