Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art sits on the outskirts of Terrace, population 11,000, in the far North of British Columbia. The town is crossed by the Transcanada highway which connects the country from Winnipeg on the East to Prince Rupert on the west coast. The town, surrounded by mountains and forests, is also home to large lumber yards and number of motels housing the temporary workers labouring on various construction projects in the energy industry. The School is part of Northwest Community College and is housed in a large converted workshop building on campus. As we go in early in the morning, students are arriving and settling in their desks and earnestly busying themselves with their drawings. Inside a large banner hangs with the School’s logo and First Nations designs decorate the walls. We are received at the school by Stan Bevan (Tahltan/Tlingit /Tsimshian) and Ken McNeil (Tahltan/Tlingit/Nisga’a) Dean Heron (Kaska/Tlingit). The School was set up in 2006 by Dempsey and his nephews Stan and Ken with the help of Rocque Berthiaume an anthropologist and art historian already working in the Northwest Community College.
The School runs a traditional Northwest coast art two-year programme, with an intake of around 25 each year. The students come from a range of First Nations across British Columbia (B.C.) which presents some challenges for the instructors because of the diversity of language communities represented and the range of stories and styles from the communities people come from. The Northwest Community College website states that students in the College as a whole come from 27 out of the 197 different nations in B.C.
In the School the students get a thorough training in drawing and carving, learning the grammar of Northwest coast art, its forms and transformations and the iconic representations of the important animals of this region. Over our time here we saw the students meticulously drawing, copying the traditional designs from old bentwood boxes from large photo reproductions spread across the desks. Those in their second year were creating their own compositions in different colored ink. Students also learn to carve masks, spoons, bigger sculptures and are often invited to help the instructors working on larger commissions and totem poles. The course also teaches the students how to make their own tools, how to source and treat the wood for their carvings, and how to engage with the art market. At the end of their second year the students exhibit their work in the prestigious Spirit Whistler Gallery in Vancouver (more on this later).
The teaching occurs through the examples of the ‘old pieces’, high quality work done in the past by these communities and now found mainly in museums across the world. Teaching also occurs through the examples and instructions of Dempsey, Ken, Stan and Dean who offer constant feedback to the students. Students also learn from each other, showing and commenting on each others work and creating a supportive environment that I did not encounter in the art college I went to. With Rocque students have classes in the history of Northwest coast art which takes place through lectures and visits to significant sites such as the Nisga’a museum, the Kitsela Canyon, and elsewhere, where students can learn from the pieces and from others practitioners.
Also significant at the school are the guest lecturers who include those involved in the art market, in museums (see the entry on our conversation with Bill McLennan from the anthropology museum in Vancouver), as well as artists from abroad. A group of Maori artists, with whom the instructors have had a long working relationship, are regular lecturers in the course.
An important element of the school for us was also the role of stories and their connection to this art form. Whereas the art from the Northwest coast has its particular grammar of forms, it is also embedded in a larger web of stories concerning the various animals represented and their relationships to humans and the land. This rich and diverse web of stories permeates the lives of the various Nations of this region. Yet we do not pretend to understand but the very basics of this highly intricate and complex cosmology and the role of stories within it which involves such things as clan and family affiliations, kinship rules, origin stories, history, ecological and spiritual knowledge, rights to land and cultural property.
What was significant for us, in our enquiry upon enlivened forms of learning, was to see how art served as a conduit to reconnect with these ways of knowing embedded in these communities. As such students were encouraged, through their art practice, to learn these stories and the ways of knowing and being expressed in them. As narrated to us by the instructors and students we talked to, this process of reconnecting with the stories, art forms and cultural practices also led to a rekindled sense of identity, cultural pride and feeling of belonging.