Thursday, 23 January 2014




Every week, I will be writing about an artist, historian, or historical figure related to the arts and culture. Please feel free to share your thoughts. 

Ellen Neel (1916-1966), a mid 20th century Kwakwaka’wakw (or Kwakiutl) woodcarver and painter, was born in Alert Bay, British Columbia. While her mother was a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe, her father was an American Seaman. As the first known professional female totem pole carver of her time, she paved the way for many subsequent West Coast artists. Ellen studied her craft under her noteworthy maternal grandfather, Charlie James, while attending St. Michael’s residential school. By early adolescence, Ellen was selling her finely crafted sculptures and later left school to pursue her career in art.
In 1939, Ellen married her husband, Ted Neel, a salesman and metalsmith. Together, they had six children and established a loving and artful household in Vancouver. When her husband became ill in the mid 1940’s, she had no choice but to provide for her family. With her husband’s entrepreneurial experience and her impeccable artistic skill, they established a family carving business. 

Early on, Ellen and her children would sell their handcrafted mini totem poles to tourists in Stanley Park, Vancouver. She eventually carved a large totem pole for the Totemland Society, a restoration group funded by the Department of Indian Affairs. This project launched her career as she garnered world-wide recognition for her work. She eventually established a carving studio in Stanley Park and went on to work on many commissions for various institutions, including the University of British Columbia.

Ellen and her family carving a totem pole.

Ellen was not only a remarkable artist but also an influential individual. While she contributed to the rejuvenation of the art of the totem pole, she also maintained the authenticity of Kwakwaka’wakw style. Her work as a carver (a male-centric art form at the time) and her role as sole breadwinner for her family, challenged the cultural standards of the mid-century. Many subsequent female artists, including Freda Diesing and Doreen Jensen, followed in her footsteps. By sharing her skill with her family and community, she not only preserved but also perpetuated her cultural traditions to younger generations -- as did her grandfather. Her grandson, David Neel, is now a successful artist living in British Columbia.

If you would like to learn more about Ellen, you may find this book of interest.

Information and image sources:


  1. I really like the fact that Ellen was not only a talented carver but also a business-woman who also managed a large household! Truly spectacular story - thank you for bringing this to our attention, Jaime!

  2. Yes, she was truly a wonderful person. She has always been one of my favourite artists!