Art & Soul
Nestled at the heart of Northwest Community College’s Terrace, BC campus is an inviting building with warm cedar siding, copper piping, and a place in history. Affectionately referred to as “Freda’s House,” it’s the home of the College’s Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art.
The school serves as a First Nations art studio and workshop, and is the only one of its kind in Canada, focusing on traditional Northwest Coast native art with a view to developing fine art skills.
An exceptional carver, teacher and mentor, Freda was a Haida renaissance artist who helped revive and continue the traditions of northwest First Nations art at a critical time when there were very few teachers of the art and culture. Born in Prince Rupert in 1925, Freda’s family moved to Terrace when she was 10, where she lived most of her life. She was one of very few female carvers of Northwest Coast totem poles. The school was developed by the College to honour, recognize and continue Freda’s legacy.
Instructors at the school during its first year include world-renowned artists such as Dempsey Bob (Tahltan/Tlingit), Stan Bevan (Tahltan/Tlingit/Tsimshian), Ken McNeil (Tahltan/Tlingit/Nisga’a) and Christian White (Haida). The men play an important role in passing on Freda’s legacy, and also instill in their students an understanding of each one’s responsibility to share this valuable knowledge with others.
Stan Bevan says the school aims to incorporate the fundamentals of Northwest Coast art, from making one’s own carving tools to learning the proper forms, and developing those techniques into a fine art. But the school does more than just teach technique.
“It’s encouraging the students to go back and learn their own history—their own nation’s history. That’s when their art becomes their own, when they go out and research it and it becomes their own identity,” says the soft-spoken Bevan. “We’re not just teaching the art; we’re teaching what it takes to become an artist.”
And it’s working. Each of the students who finished the first year are coming back for the second year of studies next fall—a testament to the program and the seriousness with which the students approach it. Ranging in age from 18 to 66, the students have varying levels of experience: some have been carving for many years, while others picked up their first tool in September.
For Dean Heron (Kaska/Tlingit), a member of the Wolf Clan from Watson Lake, Yukon, the school exceeded his expectations and connected him with his heritage. Adopted as an infant by a non-native family, he had always been encouraged to research his history, and developed an affinity for painting and drawing by copying other First Nations styles.
After focusing on carving during his first year at the school, Heron’s passion for art has flourished. So taken by the power of the program and the school, he quit his job with the provincial government in Victoria to move to Terrace with his wife and two young sons to pursue his studies. He and his fellow students understand that in order to pass on Freda’s knowledge, some level of personal and even professional sacrifice must be made. They accept that responsibility and embrace it.
“It’s not just about painting or carving or tool making,” Heron says. “They are teaching us about respect for ourselves, our teachers, our classmates, and the art itself. It went far beyond my expectations.”
For Heron, reating his art is a spiritual experience. Like many of his classmates, he says he loses himself in the process. The students developed a close bond over the course of the year, and became so engaged in the creative process it was not unusual to find them carving late into the night in Heron’s home workshop.
One doesn’t need to look any further than the school’s eldest student, Willie Abrahams (Haida), 66, to see the tremendous impact it has made educationally, personally and culturally. A member of the double-headed Eagle Clan of Maiden Harbour on Haida Gwaii, Abrahams is a residential school survivor. He sees the program as a chance for him to reclaim a culture that was stripped away from him as a child.
“I’m a product of residential schools—I never really had an interest in my culture or anything for quite a few years,” Abrahams says.
“I’m a survivor of the government trying to assimilate us. I wanted to prove to the government and to Canada that they didn’t get all of us,” he says with a sense of pride and confidence that hangs from every word. “When I went to that residential school, in a way I was ashamed to be an Indian.”
The inspiration for the development of the Freda Diesing School stems from the colonialization that Abrahams speaks of.
“There were more residential schools in BC than any other province in Canada,” says Stephanie Forsyth, president of Northwest Community College. “One of the main vehicles of colonialization was education, and the impact from those schools is profound. If education was a powerful tool for colonialization, then education must be a powerful tool for redressing it.”
The task of redressing the damage done is overwhelming, but Forsyth believes through reviewing the values, structures, policies and systems in place in the education system, that change can come—and the traditional art that is so intrinsic to so many communities can be revived.
“Art is a very powerful way of reclaiming culture and language,” says Forsyth. “For many, this education program is as much about healing as it is about art.”
The healing process of art is evident, says student Henry Kelly (Nisga’a/ Tsimshian) from New Aiyansh. Kelly spent much of his formative years partying and hanging out on the streets in Prince Rupert. Booze and drugs were part of his life. Finding his gift as an artist was his lifeline, helping him stay sober and develop his skills.
“This saved me,” he says. “It’s healing. It’s therapeutic. I just didn’t care about anything and it gave me a purpose.”
Though he began carving more than 15 years ago, he didn’t realize until he joined the Freda Diesing School that he’d kept the attitude that he didn’t need help. “I had to get rid of that attitude and say, ‘I need help.’ I’m glad I had to learn that way—you have to go through it.”
Learning from world-renowned artists such as Dempsey Bob has been inspiring. “You see the humility in him—he’s humble. That’s somewhere I’d like to be one day—the way he looks after his tools, and his art.”
From craft to fine art
Like Kelly, other classmates came to the program after years of carving on their own, with no structured teaching. All of them say they have become better artists now, recognizing the need to learn the proper forms to establish a strong foundation for their art.
James Lewis (Tahltan/Tlingit), a member of the Wolf Clan, is from Kitkatla. He’s been carving since 1988, but says developing his craft into a fine art requires the understanding that every day is a day to learn something new.
“My style has changed considerably from what I’ve done for 18 years,” he says, pointing to eye sockets on a mask he was carving. He traces the soft, warm wood and says balance is the key, something he had missed until he took the course.
Having sold his artwork in the past, he is grateful to be taking a course with the aim to enter the fine art market of galleries and commission sales.
“An artist shouldn’t have to starve,” he says. “The Natives are finally getting recognition for the art itself—for me it’s not second best anymore. When you’re suppressed by the government and the government tries to take it away from you….” His sentence trails off as he shakes his head. Words can’t really describe the impact on his generation stemming from the residential schools.
But at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art he’s found a place where there is validation for his history and his culture, and Lewis is proud to be part of their revival.
“Here, our traditional values and art are finally getting the recognition they should have had before.”
The Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art is based in Terrace, BC at Northwest Community College.