Two former students – Dean Heron and Latham Mack – each gave a talk to all current students while we were there about their experiences as students. This posting summarizes the stories provided by Dean and Latham. These talks were recorded (filmed) as part of the second day visiting the Freda Diesing school.
The full versions of this footage will be sent to the school for their own use and sections of it will be integrated into a shorter film we will be editing on our experiences at the school while other sections will be integrated into a longer full-length documentary that will be representing the places we have visited and will be visited during the course of this year. The learners and teachers at the school were each inspiring in their own way. I learned a huge amount about the power of art, particularly within a context that provides such a warm and disciplined environment that the Freda Diesing school nurtures.
The first person to speak was Dean Heron. Dean is currently a teacher at the Freda Diesing school and is actively involved in the development of his own art (which we saw in the longhouse on campus, in the designs on the longhouses at Kitselas Canyon and also in some of his carved objects selling at the Spirit Gallery in Vancouver).
Dean didn’t grow up in a First Nations cultural community – he grew up in a White family. His adoptive parents always had encouraged him to connect with his culture which is Kaska/Tlinglit in the Yukon Territory. He studied anthropology and political science down in Victoria which is where he met his wife. She clearly has had a tremendous influence as to where he is now and he spoke of her with a deep appreciation, tenderness and love. Dean told us how his wife would always push him to learn more about what his heritage meant. He admitted that when he met her he “didn’t know anything about his culture”. His parents had bought him lots of books as a kid growing up, but he said that he did not really spend much time learning about his ancestral heritage. He told us that after he was first married and money was low, that his wife urged him to create paintings that could be given as gifts rather than buying things. He told us how he found that idea as a joke, that he did not feel that he had any talent artistically. However, through his wife’s encouragement, he taught himself how to paint through a book – painting by doing. He surprised himself by his interests in learning more and that he was not as bad as previously thought. He began looking more into First Nations art on his own. Eventually he found that he wanted to study Northern art – but, that it is very difficult to study Northern art in the ‘South’ down in Victoria. One day he happened to go into a gallery in Victoria and saw carvings by Ken McNeil and Stan Bevan (two of the founders of the Freda Diesing school). He was in awe – their work, to him, captured the essence of art. At an event he met Dempsey Bob very briefly and they met again, by chance, at a house party event in Victoria (at one of Dempsey’s children). He was invited by Dempsey to an event in Vancouver – and was then invited to come up to study at Freda Diesing for their first inaugural year as a school. As an artist, Dean felt he needed much more guidance and mentoring to understand the “old art” – to understand the nuances of what he was looking at. The school helped break it down to the fundamentals. It changed his life completely. He worked in Kitselas Canyon at the end of his first year – drawing, painting and carving. He created a sculpture for the 2010 Olympics that was exhibited in Vancouver. During the Olympics he ended up finding some of this relatives up in the Yukon territory. He spoke passionately how art came full circle for him – he started doing it to understand more about where he was from. It helped then to bring him back to his roots and since 2010 he has been up to the Yukon several times to meet and get to know his relatives. He was also told right from the beginning of the first year of the importance to teach as an artist. He started teaching immediately. Teaching up in the Yukon – especially with young kids which he told us he has learned alot from, especially a particular 5-year old about drawing salmon! Dean spoke for nearly 20 minutes with a tremendous passion and openness that was captivating. Everyone in the room was very moved.
Latham Mack spoke after Dean for about 10 minutes. A recent graduate from the Freda Deising school, Latham grew up in Bellacoola within his own Nuxalk community. He told us that different to Dean, he learned his culture from a young age – through school. His school is run completely by his First Nations Nuxalk community. He told us that he participated in Potlatches from when he was young. He first started carving with his uncle. Latham told us that he used to just watch them carve – for many years. Then one day, his uncle said, “You are here every day, you might as well start carving”. In grade 10 he told us that a non-native guy came back and he tried to get some totem poles going. This particular non-native guy started teaching art and Latham took the course. Latham carved a raven which he thought was good but his grandfather didn’t like that a non-native was teaching him. So then his grandfather taught him and Latham carved under him. In 2008, he applied to study at Freda Diesing and was accepted as a student. He told us that had he not been accepted into the program, he would have worked in the diamond mines which many young people go to work in because of difficulties in locating work and the decent pay that such work offers. Latham told us that the school opened up many doors for him – he had his work displayed at the Vancouver airport in 2009/2010 (by winning the scholarship twice for his work to be displayed). He is currently an apprentice of Dempsey, who mentors him. Latham’s work is also on display at the museum at Vancouver. He was also able to participation in work in Kitselas Canyon with Dean and other students. Latham has travelled to New Zealand to give carving workshops to Maori artists.
Latham told us that now he can look at any design and understand the shapes and the forms. Before he did not understand these – the school helped him to learn this. Udi and I bought one of Latham’s prints – of a killer whale. The colours, style and presentation of the print are stunning. It is his first print that he is selling publicly.