Indigenous artist Carey Newman is a witness to our times

Artworks address social and environmental issues

  • Apr. 24, 2019 11:00 a.m.

– Story by Hans Tammemagi Photography by Lia Crowe

In 2008, Carey Newman, an artist of the Kwakwaka’wakw, Coast Salish and settler heritage, took an old-growth log on an epic journey. Aided by a small team that included his father, Victor, also a carver, he visited about 55 communities in all corners of British Columbia. At each stop, members of the public helped carve the Spirit Pole.

For a 33-year-old, it was an enormous responsibility — an ambitious project. Carey estimates that over 11,000 people contributed to transforming the pole into a towering work of art, which was raised at the opening ceremonies of the North American Indigenous Games.

A year later, Carey embarked on another megaproject when he was selected to create an art installation for the 2010 Olympic Games. The resulting piece, entitled Dancing Wind, consists of four large panels, made from stainless steel, cedar and glass, representing wind directions, animals and colours related to the medicine wheel.

And in the decade since then, the talented Carey, who grew up in Sooke, has gone from one success to another. His much-sought-after work has been acquired by corporations, government agencies and museums around the world. He is living up to his Native name, Ha-yalth-kingeme, which means Face of a Chief.

Recently, I visited him at his spacious carving shed on the Tsawout Reserve in the Saanich Peninsula, where three large crates containing his totems were being loaded onto a truck for shipment to Germany.

A tall, clean-shaven, good-looking man, Carey has a ready smile and a subtle humour born of his Indigenous roots. His art training occurred via the First Nations method of mentoring and apprenticeship, rather than through formal courses. This marked an obvious path as he comes from a family of carvers, including his father (Victor); his great-grandfather, Charlie James; and his great-aunt, Ellen Neel.

Carey is also a musician; he studied piano at the University of Victoria and voice at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. He had a brief singing career before deciding to pursue visual art exclusively.

Showing me a cedar log, he says, “I’m careful to adhere to traditional rules and values. Finding ways to innovate without disregarding history is important to me.”

He loves working with cedar, he added, because it is a central element of Indigenous culture.

“I’m deeply connected to the wood I’m working with.”

Through his work, he strives to highlight either Indigenous, social, or environmental issues, and his media extends far beyond wood to include stone, gold/silver, gems, glass and painting. His works were available at Blue Raven Gallery in Sooke from the mid-1990s until it closed 2018. The closure occurred not due to lack of sales, but lack of time and the fact that his parents were no longer able to run it.

Carey’s most significant work is the 12-metre-long Witness Blanket, which has become a national monument. Starting in 2012, he visited residential schools, churches, government buildings and cultural structures in 77 communities across Canada to collect 887 fragments of the residential-school era.

“My dad is a survivor of the residential schools, which operated from 1870 to 1996 with 41,000 deaths. So I wanted to tell the story,” he says.

It took more than a year to collect the pieces, which included items such as a door, a piece of strap, hair cut from a female survivor, a skate and much more. Carey spent six months assembling the fragments into a row of panels, and ultimately a major art installation.

“The blanket is a universal symbol of protection,” he says. “For many of us, they help identify who we are and where we’re from — we wear them in ceremony and give them as gifts.”

The Witness Blanket is a moving and powerfully evocative way of remembering the residential school era. And after touring Canada extensively over the past few years, the Witness Blanket is undergoing conservation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. A replica is being created, which will begin touring in May 2019.

Carey was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal in 2017 and a year later, he was named to the Order of British Columbia in part, no doubt, to the Witness Blanket.

“It was a great ceremony,” he says, “but I felt conflicted because a lot of my work is critical of government.”

Carey was also recently appointed as the 6th Audain Professor of Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest at the University of Victoria, a three-year position.

“This is breaking new ground for me,” Carey says. “I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to convert the experience of mentorship into a more formal educational setting.”

He is also working to establish a Centre of Excellence to study art and reconciliation as a legacy of the Witness Blanket.

With his ability to work with many media, and to create major, thought-provoking pieces, Carey Newman is arguably one of Canada’s most influential Indigenous artists. P

Just Posted

Shots fired during Sylvan Lake and area crime spree

Sylvan Lake RCMP worked with other agencies to arrest four over the long weekend

Sylvan Lake McDonald’s raises more than $5,000 during McHappy Day

Year to date, the Sylvan Lake location has raised over $13,000 through fundraising efforts

Red Deer County firefighters dispatched to High Level

Four crew members and a fire engine are assisting in battling the out of control wild fire

Sylvan Lake family ‘humbled’ by support as son undergoes cancer treatment

Zane Baker was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2017 and will now travel to Florida for treatment

Sylvan Lake increases Municipal Enforcement activity along lakefront

With more activity in the downtown and lakefront area, officers will be more visible during summer

B.C.’s fight to regulate bitumen through pipelines to go to Canada’s top court

BC Appeal Court judges found B.C. cannot restrict bitumen flow along Trans Mountain pipeline

Scheer says it would take Conservatives five years to balance budget

Scheeraccused the Liberal government of spending $79.5 billion of previously unbudgeted funds

New airline regulations bring compensation for tarmac delays, over-bookings

Some of the new regulations will roll out in July, while others are expected for December.

Theresa May to quit as party leader June 7, sparking race for new PM

The new Conservative leader will become prime minister without the need for a general election

CMHC defends mortgage stress test changes amid calls for loosening rules

Uninsured borrowers must now show they could service their mortgage if rates rose two per cent

School bus crash in Edmonton sends 12 to hospital, 2 with broken bones

Alberta Health Services said there were no life-threatening injuries

Crews fight fire with fire to keep blaze from northern Alberta town

The wildfire now covers some 920 square kilometres

Supreme Court of Canada won’t hear Alberta murder appeals

Sheena Cuthill and her husband Timothy Rempel were found guilty three years ago of killing Ryan Lane

Pipeline protester chimes in on Justin Trudeau’s B.C. fundraising speech

The government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline and expansion project for $4.5 billion

Most Read