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NEEL, Ellen May (Newman)

Born
Alert Bay, Cormorant Island, 1916
Died
Vancouver, 1966
Biography synopsis
Ellen May Neel (née Newman) spent most of her life in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her father, Charles Newman, was an American seaman and her mother, Lucy James, was a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw (or Kwakiutl) tribe. Neel became the first female Northwest Coast totem pole carver to be profiled in literature. Her grandfather, Charlie James, and her uncle, Mungo Martin, were famous woodcarvers who, together with Neel, revived totem pole art in Canada in the early twentieth century. Neel learned carving in the 1920s and 1930s from her grandfather in the family work shed. At the age of 18, after becoming proficient at woodcarving and painting, Neel left school to pursue her career as an artist. Her First Nations name was Kaka’solas, a monogram she often signed her work with. In 1939, she married a salesman named Ted Neel and they had six children together. Shortly after moving to Vancouver in 1943, Ted Neel fell seriously ill and was no longer able to provide a regular income for his family. After completing a large totem pole for the Totemland Society (a promotional group in Vancouver), Neel’s work began to be recognized internationally. She opened a production studio in Stanley Park, where she received commissions from the University of British Columbia, a museum in Denmark (1953) and the Woodward’s Department Store (1953), among others. The artist’s health declined steadily and, in 1966, she passed away at the age of 49. Today, Neel’s works can be found all along the Western Canadian coast, including her famous Victory Through Honour (1948) totem pole on the University of British Columbia campus and several throughout scenic Stanley Park. Neel’s work inspired future generations of First Nations artists, such as Freda Diesing and Doreen Jensen. Her grandson, David Neel, is an active artist in British Columbia today.
Media used
Painting
Wood carving
File & Archive locations
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts / Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, QC
National Gallery of Canada, ON - Library and Archives
University of British Columbia - Fine Arts Library
Vancouver Art Gallery, BC - Library
Canadian Women Artists History Initiative Documentation Centre, QC
Vancouver Public Library, BC - Fine Arts and History Department
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Writings about
"Granddaughter of Noted Totem Carver Teaches Lost Art of Totem Making." Ottawa Journal (30 Dec. 1949).
"New Totem Pole Will Be Erected at UBC's Brock Hall." Vancouver Sun (18 Oct. 2004).
“Totem Poles Most-visited Site in B.C.” Vancouver Sun (2 Aug. 2008).
Cook, Dora Sewid. Interview. Cape Mudge, British Columbia: 1994.
Hawker, Ronald W. Tales of Ghosts: First Nations Art in British Columbia, 1922-1961. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2003.
Helweg, Priya Anne. Why Shouldn't We Live in Technicolor Like Everyone Else... Evolving Traditions: Professional Northwest Coast First Nations Women Artists. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1995.
Jacknis, Ira. The Storage Box of Tradition: Kwakiutl Art, Anthropologists and Museums 1881-1891 Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.
Jacknis, Ira. "Visualizing Kwakwaka'wakw Tradition: The Films of William Heick, 1951-63." BC Studies Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 125-126 (2000).
Jensen, Vickie. Totem Poles of Stanley Park. Place unknown: Westcoast Words, 2004.
Jonaitis, Aldona. Art of the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington, 2006.
Kendall, Laurel and Krupnik, Igor. Constructing Cultures Then and Now: Celebrating Franz Boas and the Jesup North Pacific Expedition. Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution, 2003.
Kramer, Pat. Totem Poles: An Altitude SuperGuide. Surrey, British Columbia: Heritage House Publishing, 2008.
Lewis, Shauna. “Victory Through Honour: The Ellen Neel Kwakwaka'wakw Pole Returns to its Home at the University of British Columbia.” First Nation's Drum (12 Dec. 2004)
http://firstnationsdrum.com/2004/12/victory-through-honour-the-ellen-neel-kwakwakawakw-pole-returns-to-its-home-at-the-university-of-british-columbia/.
MacDonald, Colin S. The Dictionary of Canadian Artists. (Volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker) Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2009
http://www.rcip-chin.gc.ca/application/aac-aic/description-about.app?lang=en.
MacIvor, Madeleine. "Xwi7xwa Library: A Branch of the University Library." Longhouse News 12.1 (Fall 2005).
Macnair, Peter L. & Grenville, Bruce. Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1998.
McMann, Evelyn de Rostaing. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Formerly Art Association of Montreal: Spring Exhibitions, 1880-1970. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.
Neel, Travis. "The Words of Ellen Neel, April 1948." Generation No. 7 (10 Apr. 2008)
http://www.neel.org/2008/04/10/the-words-of-ellen-neel-april-1948/.
Nuytten, Phil. The Totem Carvers: Charlie James, Ellen Neel, and Mungo Martin. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1993.
Palette. "Ellen Neel Gains Recognition." Province (20 May 1950).
Palmer, Carolyn Butler. "Renegotiating Identity: 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art as Family Narrative." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 29.2 and 29.3 (2008): 186-223.
Phillips, Kimberly Jean. Making Meaning in Totemland: Investigating a Vancouver Commission. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2000.
Pollack, Jill. "Ellen Neel's Forgotten Legacy." Vancouver Step Magazine 2.1 (1991): 32-35.
Renate, Wilson and Dickman, Thelma. “They’re Giving the Culture Back to the Indians.” Imperial Oil Review 48.2 (Apr. 1964): 14-18.
Stewart, Hilary. Looking at Totem Poles Seattle: Douglas & McIntyre, 1993.
Tousley, Nancy. "Photographer Gives People a Voice." Calgary Herald (24 Aug. 1991).
Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. "Circulating Aboriginality." Journal of Material Culture 9.2 (Jul. 2004): 183-202.

Writings by
Neel, Ellen. Report of Conference on Native Indian Affairs. (Lecture delivered at Acadia Camp, University of British Columbia.) Vancouver: 1948.

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