People / Ellen Neel

Artist. Ellen Neel was born in 1916 in Alert Bay, the daughter of Charlie Newman—the son of a Kwakiutl mother and the America seaman James Newman—and Lucy Lilac James, daughter of Charlie James and Sara Nina Finlay. Neel came from a family of respected Kwakwaka’wakw totem carvers: she studied under her maternal grandfather, Charlie James, and her uncle (and James’ step-son) was Mungo Martin. She married Ted Neel in 1939, two years after the birth of their first child David in 1937. Relocating to Vancouver in 1943, the young family numbered eight by 1945. The subsequent year, her husband suffered the first in a series of strokes, forcing Neel to become the primary income earner. Their Powel Street home was converted into a studio for the production of small objects directed to the tourist trade. The Totemland society— the brainchild of Harry Duker and Mayor Charlie Thompson—commissioned Neel to design their logo. The final project consisted of a thunderbird with outstretched wings on top of an oval-shaped green globe with a map of the coast of British Columbia, featuring Alert Bay at the center of the world. Duker arranged for Neel to open a studio at Stanley Park (official permission was granted by the Parks Board in 1948). Visitors flocked to the Totem Arts Studio at Ferguson Point to purchase “authentic” native crafts and watch the Neel family at work.

Neel also made full-scale works. For example, Neel donated a 16-foot totem pole, entitled Victory Through Honor, as a gift to the Alma Mater Society of the University of British Columbia in 1948. The president of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia, Chief William Scow of Alert Bay, presented the totem. The Kwicksutaineuk Nation also gave to the University of British Columbia and its sports teams the unique right to use the thunderbird as its mascot. It was through this association with the University of British Columbia that the director of the Department of Anthropology, Harry Hawthorn, invited Neel to restore four large Kwakiutl totem poles from Fort Rupert. Ultimately, Neel had to ask her uncle, master carver Mungo Martin, to take over the project as it began to grow in scope—fueled by Hawthorn’s desire to copy decaying poles—and thereby limited Neel’s ability to produce work for the tourist market. Commercial projects, such as a totem pole for the Vancouver Tourist Association in conjunction with an American television program, occupied Neel’s practice for most of the 1950s. After the death of her eldest son, David, in 1961, Neel’s heath declined steadily. In turn, the pace of her production slackened and she was reduced to selling her own collection, along with her tools. Neel passed away in 1966.

  1. 12. Ellen Neel Carving with Children
    Ellen Neel (Photograph)
  2. 13. Ellen Neel Carving, "Kwakiutl Indian Carving Totempole"
    Ellen Neel (Photograph)
  3. 14. Neel Family As Totem Pole
    Ellen Neel, David Neel, and David Neel (Photograph)
  4. 15. Totem carvers, Ellen Neel and Family
    Ted Neel and Ellen Neel (Photograph)
  5. 16. Katherine Hepburn receiving totem pole carved by Ellen Neel from Harry Duker, Totem Land Society
    Ellen Neel (Photograph)
  6. 17. Ballerina Maria Tallchief with Ellen Neel and Totem Pole
    Ellen Neel (Photograph)
  7. 18. Ellen Neel and son David
    Ellen Neel and David Neel (Photograph)
  8. 19. Kwakiute Indian Carving Totem Pole, Ellen Neel carving demonstration
    Ellen Neel (Photograph)
  9. 20. Ellen Neel Carving with Children
    Ellen Neel (Photograph)
  10. 21. Ellen Neel Carving, "Kwakiutl Indian Carving Totempole"
    Ellen Neel (Photograph)