Northwest B.C. artist Ken McNeil works on a totem pole

Northwest B.C. totem poles bound for the United States

Works of art commissioned by a foundation in Minnesota

Three renowned northwestern B.C. artists who are also instructors of the First Nations fine arts program at Northwest Community College here have been commissioned to each carve a totem pole for a philanthropic foundation from Minnesota.

Stan Bevan, Dempsey Bob and Ken McNeil of the college’s Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art have been busy conceptualizing and carving the three totem poles since May.

The trio will work on the totem poles throughout the summer and at the end of September they will be delivered by truck to their final destination at the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation’s new building in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“It’s an honour to be part of this project,” Bevan said from his carving workshop across from the Kitselas First Nation treaty office on Queensway in Thornhill last week.

“When it comes out it’ll be very meaningful.”

Bevan, who was been creating First Nations art for more than three decades, said it’s important for him to continue creating new totem poles.

“Continuously bringing that forward – the strength of the totem pole – is important,” Bevan said.

According to the foundation’s managing program director Robyn Hollingshead, the pieces will be displayed prominently in an open area of the Cargill foundation’s newly expanded building.As foundation director, Hollingshead is involved in giving money for arts and culture projects throughout North America.

“It was important to our leadership that our home highlight the kinds of arts that we support in communities through our grant making,” Hollingshead said in an email. “We specifically want to support intergenerational transfer of artistic skill and knowledge of traditional native arts. This commission supports both of those goals.”

Bob is a world-renowned First Nations northwestern B.C. artist who was taught by Freda Diesing, a famous northwest coast totem pole carver from which NWCC’s First Nations art program gets its name. Bevan and McNeil are cousins, and Bob is their uncle.

McNeil, who has also been carving for over 30 years and is a founding instructor at the college’s Diesing school, said he had been putting in roughly 10-hour days while working on his 16-foot-long totem pole.

“They had some guidelines they wanted us to go by,” McNeil said in reference to special instructions given by the foundation about the totem poles. “They’re inland native people and it’s really fascinating to them to have a story done in our tradition going over to their land.”

The Margaret A. Cargill Foundation was founded after the death of its namesake in 2006.

With assets said to be in the $3 billion range, the foundation provides money for many different educational, charitable and artistic programs in North America and abroad.

Cargill was an heiress to Cargill, Inc., one of the world’s largest agricultural corporations which is located in Minnesota.

This is not the first time the Cargill foundation has had a connection with Northwest Community College – in 2012 the college received a $300,000 grant from the foundation aimed at supporting the Diesing school.

“They are funding our program. And they’re building new offices and they’re taking little bits and pieces of each area that they help out,” McNeil said.

According to the foundation’s website, one of its programs is dedicated to providing money and support for “folk arts, Native American art, music, tactile art, and artistically significant crafts that foster human creativity.”

In the case of the three totem poles being created by Bevan, Bob and McNeil, it’s an opportunity to share some northwest coast art and culture with the rest of the world.

“They’re a non-soliciting organization – they found us, we didn’t look for them,” McNeil said. “They really love the form of education we do, which is traditional teaching, and that’s what they really like to base part of their funding from.”

Bevan, Bob and McNeil have also received help carving their totem poles – which range in length from 12 to 20 feet – from 2009 Diesing school graduate Darryl Moore.

Hollingshead said NWCC is one of eight institutions in the Pacific Northwest that has received Native arts and culture grants in the last couple years.

“Our native arts and cultures team got to know [Bevan, Bob and McNeil] during our visits to British Columbia to identify potential grantees and to follow up with those organizations after they became grantees,” Hollingshead said.