Neel, Ellen (1916 - 1966)

Culture/Community

Kwagu'l (Tsaxis)

Biography

Ellen Neel was the niece of Mungo Martin and granddaughter of Charlie James, and she began drawing and painting very early in life, at age 12. Ellen Neel's father was Charles Newman who in turn was the son of James Newman. She attended St. Michael's Residential School in Alert Bay and learned outside of school how to carve from her grandfather, Charlie James. Ellen married Ted Neel and had a large family with him. In 1946, Ellen had to solely support the family by carving full-time, since Ted Neel suffered a serious stroke which impaired his health for life. Thus, her husband dealt with the business side of her work, while Ellen carved and painted. She worked on a number of restoration projects (including some at UBC) and commision projects as well. In 1950, she was elected onto the board of the Vancouver Centre Liberal Association--a support group for one of Canada's strongest political parties-- she became the first native woman to hold office. Ellen Neel produced works for the tourist trade and sold things through Totem Art Studios in Stanley Park. All the while Ellen worked, she taught her children her skills; at the age of 12, Dave Neel, the oldest son, was as good a carver as his mother, but in 1961 he died in a car accident in Washington State, and both Ellen and her husband never recovered from the pain. Her Kwakwaka'wakw name, Kakaso'las, means "people come from faraway to seek her advice".