Exploring Venice by canoe
October 23rd, 2019
The Way Home (UBC Press $32.95)
by David A. Neel
A relative of carver Mungo Martin and a grandson of Ellen Neel, the best-known female First Nations artist in British Columbia during the 1950s and 1960s—David Neel, born in 1960, has overcome traumatic events in childhood, and, by following his passion for art from an early age, is now a renowned Kwakwaka’wakw artist. His decades-long career ranges from photography, to totem poles and finely made jewelry. – Ed.
Review by Latash-Maurice Nahanee
I first met David Neel in 1987. I was an editor at Kahtou News, a provincial First Nations publication, when Neel visited the office one day. Upon learning he was a news magazine photographer, we became friends. I soon discovered he was learning Northwest Coast carving with Beau Dick and Wayne Alfred, two artists who were already established.
Over the next 30 years, I went through several career changes but Neel stayed true to art. While he was living in the United States, Neel was first a photographer. His portraits for the Pequot Museum in Connecticut captured the tribe’s resilience and success in a modern world. This tribe was all but wiped out until they won recognition of their treaty and Aboriginal rights. As part of their treaty with the U.S. government, they were able to build and operate the Foxwoods Casino. It became the most successful Native American-owned casino in the U.S.
The Way Home is filled with portrait photography that conveys stories that cannot be told by words alone. In this image-filled memoir we are also invited into Neel’s creative journey through his descriptions and photos of his own carved masks and his precious metal jewelry. Neel literally carves deeply into the materials of wood and metal as a true master of Kwaguitl art. As a result, his work has a sculptural look, the sign of a good carver.
Neel has also been a participant in the renewed impetus for Indigenous canoe journeys.
During the 1989 Washington State Centennial Commemorations, First Nations were invited to carve and paddle to Seattle, Washington. The event would prove to be a spark for the revival of Northwest Coast canoe culture.
During that seminal event, Frank Brown, from Bella Bella, invited communities to visit Bella Bella on the central coast of B.C. for a canoe festival, which is a celebration of culture.
Having joined a team from Campbell River, David Neel participated in that festival, which inspired a broader rekindling of cultural practices. Neel was caught up in the excitement and began thinking about the creation of a canoe of his own.
Upon returning to Campbell River, where Neel was living at the time, he located and carved a massive red cedar log. One of Neel’s many qualities is to be humble enough “to go to the one who knows.” He visited the great Haida artist Bill Reid to seek advice and Reid was generous in sharing his knowledge.
It is interesting how talent and hard work take you on journeys beyond your own dreams. For instance, not only did the canoe journey to Bella Bella lead Neel to carve his own canoe; it also led him to Venice, Italy, where he was invited to take part in the Venice Biennale.
In Venice, Neel exhibited his canoe by paddling it around the city. With its canals providing the highways for city life, Venice was the perfect venue to display the canoe and to see the city in its entire splendor. Fortunately for me, I was included in the crew for the Venice trip.
In a water taxi it is difficult to appreciate the architecture and art on the walls of the buildings due to the speed of the boats, but in Neel’s canoe we could leisurely stop and marvel at the sights. I have been on ten canoe journeys and Neel’s canoe is one of the best of the carved canoes I’ve experienced.
In addition to his canoe, David Neel showed many of his carved masks in Venice, the “City of Masks.” It was a mask that brought Neel home to Vancouver. While he was starting out as a photographer in the U.S., he attended an art show in Texas and was startled by one particular exhibit.
“I came to a case that contained a Northwest Coast Indigenous mask,” he writes, “the first I’d seen other than in photographs… I could feel my connection to that mask as though it had an energy that made me need to know more – what it represented, where it came from, and who had carved it.”
It turned out there was indeed a deep connection to the person who had carved the mask. It had been made by Neel’s great-great grandfather, Charlie James. The experience lit a path for Neel back to his homeland.
Inspired by the creativity of his famous Indigenous artist ancestors, Neel switched from photography to carving in red cedar, silver and gold. While creating within the artistic style of his ancestors, he has also continued their tradition of following modern interpretations—in other words, adding modern responses to contemporary issues.