UBC PRESS, 2019
by Latash-Maurice Nahanee
The Way Home is a new memoir by David Neel, a renowned Northwest Coast artist from Vancouver Island. Early childhood traumatic events were overcome by a passion for art at an early age. His decades-long career spans photography, totem poles, and finely made gold and silver jewelry.
Neel began his photography career in Texas, USA. Black-and-white photographs have a power to convey the character of a subject in a sixtieth of a second. The Way Home is filled with portrait photographs taken on a lifelong journey. They convey stories that cannot be told by words alone.
We are invited into Neel’s visual creative journey through his words as well as photographs of carved masks and precious metal jewelry. A true master of Kwakiutl art, Neel carves deeply into wood or metal, and his work has a sculptural look and feel.
In 1993, the canoe journey to Bella Bella led Neel to carve his own canoe. It also led him to Venice, Italy, where he was invited to take part in the Venice Biennale. Here, he would display his canoe by paddling it around the city. With canals providing the highway for city life, the canoe was the perfect venue to display his art. He also showed many of his carved masks in Venice.
It was a mask that brought Neel home to Vancouver. While attending an art exhibition in Texas, Neel came across a mask made by his great-great-grandfather Charlie James. Neel writes: “I came to a display that contained a Northwest Coast Indigenous mask, 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 Neel had a deep connection to the person who had made the mask and the culture that informed its creation.
The experience had a profound impact on Neel and lit the path 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. Creating within the artistic style of his ancestors, David Neel also continues their tradition of responding to contemporary issues.