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Symbols Speak: David Neel Book Launch + Solo Exhibition 2019

With the release of David Neel’s new memoir, The Way Home (UBC Press), Coastal Peoples Gallery is pleased to present Symbols Speak, an exhibition of the artist’s multimedia works in conjunction with his book launch on Saturday, November 16th through to December 28th, 2019.

As a 7th generation artist, whether inspired from ancient or modern cultures, David Neel understands that artistic expression through symbols communicates what words cannot regardless of verbal or written form.  Symbols Speak represents an impressive collection of fine jewellery, carvings and graphics illustrating the artist’s exploration, cultivation, and return to his Indigenous roots.

“Art communicates at an intuitive level through symbols, which can express gigabytes of information.  Symbols speak to the soul, to the primitive psyche, communicating coded messages that bypass the conscious mind to communicate to a deeper part of the brain.”

Through the creation of his art and life, David connects to a deeper, less visible world that incorporates the distinctive symbols of his own cultural heritage – the Kwakwakwa’wakw.

“Northwest Coast art is rich in symbols, and those symbols played an essential role in my early life, helping to form my emotional and psychological foundation.”

David’s intimate encounters and teachings from renowned-artists, such as Beau Dick, Wayne Alfred, Lyle Wilson and Bill Reid, amongst others, as well as his hands-on workings with international museum collections, has given David an experiential model in which to form his own sensibilities and perceptions of what constitutes Northwest Coast art.

“I had the rare privilege of holding in my hands some of the finest of the ancient masterpieces, and they helped form my philosophy, interpretation, and approach to Indigenous art.”

“The smell, texture, and form of those ceremonial objects changed my understanding of Northwest Coast Indigenous art and left an indelible impression on my psyche that influences and informs my art to this day.”

His many years of absorbing the traditional stories and mythologies from elders has given him insightful, in-depth knowledge of this legendary art form.

“Seeing the many characters depicted in those early carvings, and knowing that they were inspired by the ancient stories, heightened my curiosity, and I wanted to know about the characters, themes, and knowledge contained in the tales that had been handed down by the ancestors.”

“Northwest Coast art is deeply symbolic, and I keep working to better understand its ancient meanings and import. I have tried to share that information with my children, as others have shared their knowledge and wisdom with me.  This, I believe is the foundation of Indigenous culture: to learn the traditional knowledge and pass it on to the next generation.”

Over time through a series of personal journeys that took him from one part of the world to another, David was able to achieve his greatest feat which was finding his way back home to “my people”.

“…my first feast…that was the day that I came home to my people…it symbolized acceptance by my family, nation, and extended community. After being away for most of my life, it might have been impossible for me to return and immerse myself in the culture and community again – so few people manage to do this. But great-great-grandfather’s Tsegame mask in Fort Worth, Texas, my apprenticeship with Beau Dick and Wayne Alfred, and the knowledge of the elders – collectively, these things had shown me the way home.”

“In all cultures family and heritage become undefined and intangible when you’ve been away for a long time.  The sense of having a place of origin fades until it is a dim memory.  But, somehow, I always knew I would reconnect with the people portrayed in my father’s paintings – although it took me twenty-five years to realize how that could be accomplished.”

The artworks featured in Symbols Speak are designed from precious metals, cedar wood and graphics on paper and canvas, some of which are highlighted in David’s book The Way Home, such as the silver with gold box ‘The Final Exam’, which he writes about on 159/160:

“The Final Exam was based on a hand-engraved silver box by Bill Reid. The box was Bill’s tribute to an early artist known as the Master of the Black Field, the creator of an incredible design on a cedar bentwood box, circa 1880, that is one of the most accomplished examples of Northwest Coast design that has survived from the early period.  Bill referred to his silver box as his “final exam,” and after three decades of work, I wanted to follow Bill’s example and take my own final exam.”

A special highlight in this exhibition will be David’s mask of his grandmother Ellen Neel created in 1990, which will be loaned to the gallery for display from Camosun College’s permanent collection, and depicted in his new book.

Inspiration for David to make the mask of his renowned grandmother was a frontlet carved by 19th century Haida artist Simeon Stilthda that he discovered at the National Museum of the North American Indian.  This mask depicts a chief’s daughter who had died young, and David felt it was moving memorial of a parent’s love for his daughter.

“Through the mask, I wanted to portray my grandmother’s beautiful art, traditional knowledge, and peaceful soul.  I gave the mask an assured countenance and facial features that were more refined than what I’d seen in photographs of her.  The mask was intended to represent her interior beauty, so I carved features that symbolized her depth and passion.  In other words, the mask was never intended to be a visual likeness of my grandmother: it was a symbolic representation.”

“In 1992 my daughter was born, and we named her Ellena after her grandmother. As Ellena grew into adulthood, she began to look more and more like the mask, until the resemblance was chilling.  Today, she says that the mask “freaks her out” because it looks so much like her.  But the Ellen Neel mask was carved in 1990, two years before my daughter was born.”

Coastal Peoples Gallery has been privileged and honoured to work closely with David Neel to launch his new memoir and art collection, and it is the culmination of his work and philosophy as shared by the artist:

“The last three decades of … making art have taught me that creativity is a process, not a destination.  I consider art to be a journey, not an endpoint. I think of my art practice as a path on which I walk every day of my life.”  – David Neel

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