David Neel - Artist Statement
Some artists search for the direction of their work and others are born to it. I am of the latter category. My father, Dave Neel Sr., was a contemporary Native sculptor and painter in the 1950’s. He was taught in the traditional Kwagiult manner by his mother, Ellen Neel, the first woman carver. She was schooled in traditional sculpture and design by her great-uncle Mungo Martin, and her grand-father Charlie James.
I also learnt these traditional skills, though initially I set out to be a photographer, believing in the philosophy of the Concerned Photographers such as Cartier Bresson and W. Eugene Smith. This served me well to do a number of documentary projects which resulted in exhibitions and books, the latest of which is a permanent installation of portraits at the MashantucketPequotMuseum and ResearchCenter.
Coming from a visual arts background I felt limited in photography and felt the need to work in the traditional arts of my family. In the 1980’s and 1990’s I did print making and wood carving, making traditional and contemporary prints in a number of media, and carved canoes, totem poles, and masks. After much research in the museum collections I realized that many “traditional” masks of the past dealt with topics of their times, such as Ridicule Masks of non-native settlers, I then began to create works about the issues of our times. These were received with ambivalence and even hostility by the NWC academic community, as these works directly challenged the fundamental understanding of “traditional” Native art.
During this period I developed the underlying foundation for all my work: that tradition is a foundation to build upon, not a set of rules to limit creativity. This understanding was the turning point in my career, and set the path for my future work.
In 1993 the tribes of the NWC came alive with the rebirth of the ocean going canoe tradition, a tradition forgotten for about 100 years. This was the most important development in NWC culture in decades and I documented this, resulting in a book, The Great Canoes, and went on to carve two canoes. One of these we took to the 1999 Venice Biennale, where it was used in a site-specific installation using masks and text, and in performance on the Grand Canal.
I continued to create masks about our times through the year 2000, when I began to feel that I had done as much as I could in that media. I feel that one of the biggest errors an artist can make is get comfortable, or find something that works commercially and then begin to copy himself.
I slowed the pace on exhibiting as I wanted to take my work in an entirely new direction. I felt compelled to work with color, and utilized oil on canvas, as my father had. I expected it to come easily, as I had worked in so many media previously, but it would 5 years until I was putting on the canvas what I envisioned in my head.
It was in this period, with 27 years as a working artist, that I came to understand the true path for an artist. While critical success, commercial acceptance, and the admiration of one’s peers is undeniably valuable, it is a tragedy for a creative person to reach the end of his career and know that he was capable of more. The only real goal for a serious artist is to fulfill his creative potential above all else.