Lou-ann Neel has been making art since high school, creating textiles, carving wood, engraving jewelry, painting and eventually getting into digital illustrations. She has a fine art degree from Emily Carr, and sells her designs online.
But it took receiving the Fulmer Award in Indigenous Art this November for Neel to see herself as an artist.
“I just didn’t think anything I did was anything special because I’ve been surrounded by artists my whole life, and my whole thing was, I want to be as good as them. I’ve never seen myself so much as an artist,” she said.
Her family is rich with artistic talent — Charlie James, Mungo Martin, Ellen Neel and Kevin Cranmer, to name a few.
“When I was learning to design, that’s when I realized it’s not just a great privilege to learn but it’s kind of a family obligation to continue our own family tradition.”
Art is something she’s compelled to do, but she never considered it a career – just a full-time passion outside of her day jobs in public administration, and currently as a curator for the Royal B.C. Museum. But receiving this award, along with five other Indigenous artists in B.C. — Cole Speck (also from Alert Bay), Jaalen Edenshaw, Kelly Robinson, Nathan Wilson and Evelyn Vanderhoop — caused Neel to take a second look at her own body of work.
Neel was born in Alert Bay, and returns as often as she can to participate in ceremonies and potlatches, spend time with family, and get in time on the land and sea.
Her art education began in high school where she was taught Kwakiutl art in an immersive Indigenous art, social studies and language program. Though living in Victoria by then, she was learning Kwak’wala language and being mentored by artists like George Hunt Jr., her brother Kevin Cranmer.
She pursued a career in public administration, but kept making art on the side, becoming a full-fledged as a multi-disciplinary artist in textiles, silversmithing, painting and carving.
In 2011, she discovered a laser engraving technique for jewelry. Other traditional artists scoffed at the laser work, but for Neel, whose enthusiasm for carving earned her carpal tunnel syndrome that stopped her from engraving, the laser was a natural adoption of technology.
“I’m still the one making the design, I’m just not hand-cutting each piece because I physically can’t. But that shouldn’t stop me from being able to create the kind of jewelry I’d love to put out there.”
She went to Emily Carr around that time, graduating four years later with a degree in fine arts focused on digital graphic design. It was while researching for a project that Neel learned about her grandmother, Ellen Neel, an artistic legend in Vancouver.
A rare female totem pole carver — she was one of a group who gave the UBC Thunderbirds their name by gifting a thunderbird totem in 1948 — Ellen was also among the first to put designs on everyday things like clothes and in architecture in the 1940s and ’50s.
A quick scroll through Neel’s online stores shows her design printed on all manner of things, from tote bags to chairs to classic art prints to silk neckties.
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Neel will often take her laptop to a beach with wifi access and work on digital designs, inspired by the landscape.
The winter weather has pushed her back inside to experiment with old-fashioned paint on canvas. True to her artist’s spirit, she’s come up with a new project of creating abstract paintings about how it feels to be in the big house. She wants to communicate the sense of life and fullness that comes from ceremonies and potlatches.
“I don’t care if I get locked up for the next four months here. I have all my supplies and goals that I’ve set for myself for oil painting.”
The B.C. Achievement Foundation recognizes accomplishments of British Columbians in community work, business, and art. It was founded in 2003. The Vancouver-based Fulmer Foundation is the title sponsor of the award.
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