Enlivened Learning

Navigation Menu

The Fame and Value of Northwest coast Art

The Fame and Value of Northwest coast Art

Posted by on Nov 20, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, Vancouver | 0 comments


When I made the documentary ‘Everything was Carved’ with some members of the Haida Nation during their visit to the Pitt Rivers museum, I came to learn and appreciate the complex relationship between museums and what in this field are called ‘source communities’. Whilst the Haida expressed their wish to have their objects back (although the attribution of who made what and what belongs to whom is not always straightforward), they were also aware that museums had helped to increase the fame of their Nation. Haida objects, like those of other Nations in the Pacific Northwest, have come to be collected by countless museums and private collections across the world since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. This has meant that the art of this region, albeit having different styles to the more trained eye, is quickly recognisable and known the world over. Northwest coast art has become a highly prized collectible for museums and the international art market.

A visit to downtown Vancouver by the water front is a good demonstration of the value the art of the Northwest coast has acquired. This upscale neighbourhood is lined with galleries and boutiques attracting tourists and art buyers. As Rocque conveyed to us, the art of the Northwest coast is the most valuable in the indigenous fine art world with the market worth an estimated one billion dollars a year. This high demand for the art of this region has meant that opportunities and financial rewards have been achieved by some talented artists. We saw a number of pieces from such artists at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery where we were shown around by a gallery worker whose love for the art of this region was evident as he showed us some of his favourite pieces. Here we saw intricately beautiful sculptures and masks made by instructors and former students from the Freda Diesing School, alongside the work of other famous Northwest coast artists. Some of these pieces were selling for thousands of dollars and the works of desirable artists did not stay long in the Gallery before being bought up.

‘Four Winds’ by Ken McNeil, photo by Udi

Carmen Rhoofs, former student from Freda Diesing School, photo by Udi

The Spirit Wrestler Gallery has a close connection to the School, with the director of the Gallery lecturing there once a year and the students having their degree show at the Gallery. As the gallery worker explained to us, the degree show is a big deal for students and their families who come all the way down to Vancouver from northern B.C. After graduating, a number of students carry on trying to make it as artists. Some obtain commissions or win competitions and manage to make a living. Others have gone back to their communities and become art teachers or taken on other professions. Some former students have stayed on in Terrace and stared, according to Dempsey, a Northwest coast art scene in town.

If they do manage to break into the fine art market how these artists will negotiate the two worlds of art they live in, that of art as a part of a living culture and that of art as a set of objects for contemplation and highly valued commodities, remains to be seen. The instructors at the School, Dempsey, Ken, Stan and Ken seem to have found some kind of balance on this matter and their concern for their art and their communities is clearly seen in their work as teachers.


Institutions like the Museum of Anthropology  in Vancouver have also managed to find some accommodation between the world of objects as part of a museum and the world of objects as part of a living culture.


What is interesting in both of these cases is to see how the same object, whether a mask, sculpture or totem pole, can have such different meanings and values and serve different functions depending on the set of institutions and cultural practices that surround it.


An endnote that would take a great deal of work and further research to understand and give full justice to, but which is important to say anyway. The world of First Nations art, of billion dollar art markets, of beautifully made objects of interactive museums lives within a broader context of the continuing problems faced by First Nations communities in terms of poverty, the break up of families and communities, violence and drugs, unemployment and health issues. As was pointed out to us by different people, the gallery zone in downtown Vancouver is next to what is supposed to be the poorest neighbourhood in the whole of Canada and one where many First Nations peoples live – which lies just a few blocks to the east.




Read More

Growing up with art

Growing up with art

Posted by on Nov 17, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

I grew up with art, it was just something I did and enjoyed since childhood. Painting, drawing, making things out of clay and other materials had always been pleasurable, absorbing and unpretentious activities for me. I also loved looking at art books and going to see art in museums, whenever my parents took me. This all changed after I got to art college. What had until then been a spontaneous, creative and hopeful activity in which I could lose myself for hours now took place in an environment filled with anxiety, insecurity and competitiveness.

Much of the contemporary art I saw celebrated around me, in magazines and galleries seemed shallow, market-driven and uninteresting. Rather than a gratifying and intuitive activity I felt a lot of art to be anecdotal, full of artifice and self-indulgent. I searched through the history and sociology of art for reasons of why this had come to be, writing my masters thesis on the emergence of the cult of the artist and the contemporary institutions of aesthetic contemplation (museums, galleries and so on). I was curious of how the idea and practice of the ‘art object’, as that which is removed from the flow of day to day life and social activity to become its own separate domain, had been achieved.


I did not have the language then, nor the experiences or the readings, to appreciate and describe the role of art in different cultures. I could not see then how good, or great, art is grounded in place, in the people and culture, in history, and how it is nourished by these ingredients. This is one of the important things I learnt whilst in Terrace and especially in conversations with Dempsey.


Dempsey’s art is grounded in the grammatical forms and stories of the Northwest coast. It is also an art that emerges from this place, from the shapes of the mountains, the winding curves of the rivers, the ovoid shapes of the pebbles by the streams, the towering cedars and the animals that populate this region.

Dempsey at Kitselas Canyon, photo by Udi

We spent a lot of time with Dempsey driving to the Nisga’a museum, going to the Kitselas Canyon, strolling across the dry river by Terrace and eating together on various occasions. Often Dempsey would point out features of the landscape guiding our eyes to the shapes he saw in the mountains, or the swirl of the flowing river, or the roundness of a stone. These, he said, are where the grammar of Northwest coast art comes from, the ovoid shapes which we then began to see everywhere.


Grounded in this grammar of this region Dempsey, like a number of other accomplished artists from the Northwest coast, innovates and pushes the boundaries of this art form creating more intricate designs and forms, stretching his skills as a carver. But Dempsey is also an artist between worlds, that of his Tahltan Nation for whom he continues to make ceremonial objects, totems and carvings that become part of a living cultural practice, and that of the international art market, where his objects come to acquire another set of meanings, values and functions.


In Dempsey’s studio we saw the piece he is working on now, a beautiful face with smaller figures emerging from it. The sleeping unfinished sculpture is surrounded by hundreds of chisels, waiting to wake it up. Around the walls of the studios dozens of images serve as inspiration, many of these are of old pieces from the Northwest coast, but as many are of European art, especially Van Gogh and Modigliani.

Dempsey and Udi walking in Terrace, photo by Kelly

My time in Terrace was also a kind of healing from my falling out of love with art that happened in art college. I loved being here and talking to such committed artists who came from a place where art still felt very alive. I loved the generosity of these artists, and especially Dempsey, who shared with us their stories, inspiration, and aspiration for their communities and this art form. Art comes from place, Dempsey would say. And he was not just referring to the art of this region but also that of his favourite artist Van Gogh who drew his energy from the landscapes and people of southern Europe. Through teaching others at the School, Dempsey, Ken, Stan and Dean are opening up the path for a new generation to also connect to place and to its stories (and to culture, history and identity) through a particular way of seeing and making.


Read More

Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, an overview

Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, an overview

Posted by on Nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

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).


Students drawing at Freda Diesing, photo by Udi

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.

teaching Northwest Cost designs, photo by Udi


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.


Panel on Northwest Coast Nations from the Museum of Northern British Columbia, Prince Rupert.

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.


Read More

Burning the totems, residential schools and an art resurgence

Burning the totems, residential schools and an art resurgence

Posted by on Nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

Tlingit sculpture of a missionary, Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria (photo by Udi)


A number of the oppressive acts against First Nations committed by the settlers and the Canadian state we learned about in Alberta were also perpetrated in British Columbia. The same pattern of the spread of diseases, the appropriation of land, the extraction of resources, the destruction of culture through missionary zeal, the prohibition of ceremonies and the removal of children to residential schools were also part of the stories we were told here. Just as the bundles were targeted by missionaries in Alberta, in B.C. it was the totem poles which were taken to be the most visible expression of local beliefs and ceremonies. These were either burnt or bought, at times under dubious circumstances, finding their way to museum collections across the world.


In time few master carvers and artists, with skills that had been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, remained. For several generations no poles or masks were carved in many of these communities. It was not until after the Second World War and the period of gradual removal of the oppressive laws against First Nations peoples that a group of artists started to re-learn the art, piecing fragments together from surviving artists and learning from the old pieces that were scattered across collections throughout the world. Pioneers such as Bill Reid, Freda Diesing her student Dempsey Bob and others, provoked a resurgence in northwest coast art. Whereas today a number of professional and world renowned artists from this region ensure the place of this art form in the public imagination and in the international art market, the Freda Diesing school is the only one in the country that provides training for a new generation of artists.

Burnt mask, Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria (photo by Udi)


As Dempsey and other instructors we talked to put it, it is hard to be an artists and develop these skills by yourself. The school provides an environment where this development is nourished and supported by a community of other artists, instructors and fellow students.

Read More

A trip to the Nisga’a museum, our first day in Terrace

A trip to the Nisga’a museum, our first day in Terrace

Posted by on Nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

We wake up early in our first morning in Terrace and drive from our motel to meet Dempsey Bob, a leading First Nations artist and co-founder of the Freda Diesling School of Northwest coast Art, at his home in a leafy street of wooden houses near the center of the town. We do not know what to expect but from his brief emails and his phone call to the motel this morning Dempsey seems friendly and welcoming. Arriving at his house we are greeted by a man with a kind, warm smile and creative eyes who accompanies us to the School. We take a short detour for breakfast and then try to catch up with the yellow school bus that is taking the students from the School to the recently opened Nisga’a museum two hours north along route 113.


The drive on the 113 is of intense beauty. A Northern landscape of towering mountains thinly covered in snow and vivid yellow autumnal trees draped in morning mist. The mist opens up into a surreal landscape of volcanic rocks, sharp but spherical and covered in bright light-green moss and lichen. An eagle lands on the road ahead of us and Dempsey says it is a good sign. On the drive back two black bears rustle into the trees, also a good sign. We speak to Dempsey for the two hours there and two hours back and he tells us his story. The story is of how he became an artist, how he learnt from others especially Freda Diesing, during a long period of apprenticeship, of how he was then sent north to Alaska to teach art there and also learn more of the art of his people, teaching in many places such as prisons and schools. He also told us more about his culture and its art, of stories from his grandparents. The drive went by quickly and we arrive in Nisga’a territory in no time.

The Nisga’a museum is in the village of Laxgalts’ap, in the territory of the Nisga’a people who have just recently settled their land claim with the Canadian government. With this settlement the Nisga’a have also been awarded the rights to reclaim their cultural property which has been housed in several museums in Canada.


The newly constructed museum is a beautiful building combining traditional and contemporary architecture and materials. We arrive with Dempsey just as the museum guide is giving her opening talk to the students. Inside we are guided through the exhibits – wooden masks, shaman regalia, rattles, blankets, spoons and other ceremonial pieces. The group of students respectfully listens and walks through the museum, looking and photographing the artefacts.


Nisga’a Museum

At the end of the tour a student eloquently thanks the guide and offers her gifts on behalf of the School, congratulating her Nation on their land settlement on the museum and wishing that his own Nation would also accomplish this someday soon.


Why are places like the Nisga’a museum important? In conversations with Rocque, who teaches art history and anthropology at the School, the relationship between the empowerment of a people, especially in terms of the rights to their ancestral land, and the reclaiming of their material culture became more apparent. Reclaiming ones’ material culture, dissipated through the colonial period and beyond, is a sign of strength and of the rejuvenation of cultural practices. This is not just a matter of ownership of artefacts as the objects themselves are considered as powerful items, embodying an energy of a living culture.


I also saw this in the documentary I did with the Pitt Rivers museum and the Haida Nation from Haida Gwaii, B.C. In this film, called Everything was Carved, I follow a group of Haida artists, musicians, educators and community leaders during their two week visit to the museum as they interact and learn from the pieces in the Pitt Rivers collection. I could see how the Haida treated the pieces with care and sometimes awe, regarding them as living presences of the culture that made them. The masks themselves are living representations of the animals and beings they depict and need to be danced in ceremonies to satisfy these entities. One of the masks was danced in a ceremony at the Pitt Rivers, it must have been waiting a long time on those museum shelves.


The Haida also have their own cultural centre in Haida Gwaii and have managed to repatriate a number of artefacts from museums across the world. Of even more significance though, for the Haida and other First Nations groups, is the repatriation of the bones of their ancestors which were collected at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Reburying the ancestors in ancestral land, repatriating material culture, reclaiming the knowledge of how to make the art are then all parts of a long process of healing from the trauma of colonialism and state policies and to a strengthening of community.

Read More

Dancing in the Northern Lights

Dancing in the Northern Lights

Posted by on Nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, on the road | 0 comments

Photo taken by Udi, North of Terrace, British Columbia

We had just left the Kitimaat Village, the primary residence of the Haisla First Nations, with warmth in our bellies from a delicious meal, and warmth in our heart from being enveloped by a captivating sunset that had slowly etched its way across the sky, grabbing onto each cloud to bring forth an array of yellows, pinks and oranges.  The single public eatery in Kitimaat, Seamasters Restaurant, as it was located on the edge of the Douglas Channel, a harbor that leads eventually out to the Pacific Ocean, provided us with a double gift of coloured sky and water.  The water lapped calmly against the shore from soft ripples traversing its surface.  Across to the other side of the harbor, perhaps three or so miles away, we could discern hills of evergreen trees, houses and boats – and the metallic sheen of industrial development on part of its edge in Kitimat, the ‘non-Aboriginal’ side, about a 30-minute drive away.   The industrial complex has been built as part of the proposed Enridge oil processing and transport plan, in spite of its continued negotiation with over 60 First Nations communities across Alberta and British Columbia.


Photo taken by Udi – me appreciating the sunset from Seamasters Restaurant, Kitimaat Village, British Columbia

Photo taken by Udi from Seamaster Restaurant, Kitimaat Village, British Columbia

We had chosen Kitimaat Village without much hesitation, the Haisla residence with its highly recommended artistic shops and restaurant along the water’s edges.  Seamasters was difficult to locate, nestled into the middle of the village, without a directional sign.  We stopped to view a totem pole at the village’s entrance.  It stood in isolation and we wondered about its story of creation and emergence.

Photo by Kelly of totem pole, entrance to Kitimaat Village, British Columbia


When we left the restaurant it was dark.  A darkness thick from a fully waned moon.  We were careful to drive slowly along the winding road that leaves Kitimaat through heavy forest until it reaches the highway that leads us the 50 kilometers or so back to Terrace.  Not more than 5 kilometers from Kitimaat, I suddenly noticed a shimmer of light dancing across the sky which seemed to be out of place, not connected to any human-created light.  I had Udi stop the car as soon as there was enough of a shoulder.  We stopped briefly as the shoulder was not wide or safe enough to witness the lights unfolding across the sky. The skies’ horizon was also hindered by large trees and the bright lights of cars passing more frequently than expected.  We decided to drive the 45 minutes back to Terrace and explore ideal observation points from  mapping options displayed on our GPS that was waiting for us in the hotel, and then go from there.


The GPS helped us decide to drive up Highway 113 to a lake that, on the map, appeared to be far from any human habitation.  Highway 113 sharply curved its way out of Terrace, continuing on for miles in an inky blackness.  We were wary of running into moose, bear, wolves, caribou, deer, so we restrained ourselves from driving too fast.  We did not see any Aurora brightening the night’s sky, and we thought perhaps that our opportunity to witness the elusive event had disappeared as quickly as it had made itself known.  Determinedly we drove on, convincing our impatience to hold back until we found a place to stop, a place that provided a wide open view of the night’s sky.


A wide turnoff appeared and we could just discern a lake below us.  A view of the Big Dipper (or ‘Plough’ as I learned it is called in England) was clearly visible – directly in the middle of the sky’s northern horizon in front of us.  It was nearly 10pm.  We waited.  We did not see any lights unfolding.  5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes… I kept anxiously turning around every time I heard an unidentifiable noise, hoping that a bear was not choosing to pay us a visit.


During this time we had noticed a faint band that seemed to dust the entire sky at about a 60 degree angle in front of us.  We wondered if that was part of the halo of solar particles that is the Aurora Borealis we had observed from photographs on the Internet gripping the upper northern hemisphere of the Earth – just two days ago.  The appearance of the Aurora Borealis is not predictable, a clear sky and waning moon is necessary in addition to the clashing of charged solar particles and atoms high in the Earth’s atmosphere.


Suddenly a faint being came into view.  It was as if a dancer who has been dormant, without warning, performs a half-hearted body wave in a ethereal and luminescent suit, before resting herself into another position – less dormant, but resting and visible all the same.  This single body wave seems to awaken another, and then another, a domino of dancers, each reacting to the other.  The particular splendour of the view was the reflection of the Lights dancing on the surface of the water below.


Photo by Udi north of Terrace, British Columbia

Photo taken by Udi, north of Terrace, British Columbia

We later learned through Dempsey Bob that many First Nations groups relate to the Aurora as dancing spirits – appearances of their ancestors.  We stood outside, marvelling at the lights when they appeared and waiting when they rested out of sight.  The experience, especially the first time defies adequate articulation.  It must be experienced.  I felt the presence of my grandmother and other family and friends who have passed.  They were somehow with me.  Udi also felt it was a spiritual experience that is profoundly difficult to grasp in words.

Photo taken by Udi north of Terrace, British Columbia

Photo by Udi north of Terrace, British Columbia

Photo by Udi north of Terrace, British Columbia


Photo by Udi north of Terrace, British Columbia


When we realized it was after midnight and we had an early morning a few hours in front of us, especially after a long day of driving, we reluctantly headed back to Terrace.  The Aurora were resting again when we left.  Not 5 minutes after driving south, however, I saw the entire sky light up and we stopped again at a small shoulder.  This particular dance surpassed anything we had thus far witnessed.  Some how the Aurora had shimmied its way right above our heads as well lighting up the sky behind us.  The lights were radiating out of a centre point in slow, hypnotic rays, a light purplish colour, different to the ones we had seen in front of us.  We were so awestruck that we did not manage to capture this part of the experience on film.  This photograph below is of the illuminated sky behind us.

Read More