Northwest Coast Mask by David Neel

Wooden carved Northwest Coast mask made by artist David Neel, with red, black and blue-green painted design on the natural wood surface
Northwest Coast Mask
David Neel
Kwakwaka'wakw, Canada, British Columbia
Alder wood, acrylic paint, American and Canadian coins


Detail of Northwest Coast mask showing 2 sets of eyes and a nose in the center painted with red, black and turquoise paint

Bilateral symmetry is an important part of mask making. Often, masks are seemingly a mirror image from one side of the face to the other. This symmetry, also found throughout nature, is very pleasing to the eye.

Side view of Northwest Coast mask by David Neel
Animal representation

Many masks depict various parts of the face (like the nose or mouth) joined with the face of other supernatural beings or animals. This characteristic often makes it hard to discern between figures. This particular mask depicts Kolus, the Thunderbird, in Tsegame’s mouth, and a frog resting on his head. The painted wings on his cheeks represent the powers he was gifted from the depths of the ocean.

Detail of Northwest Coast mask by David Neel, showing soft lines painted in turquoise
Soft lines

Masks of the Pacific Northwest often feature soft “s” and “u” lines. These lines are not only aesthetically pleasing, but demonstrate the artist’s ability to skillfully manipulate the wood. Soft lines accentuate the split representation so that beings often appear as “morphing” into one and other.

Detail of Northwest Coast mask by David Neel, showing a coin used as the pupil of the eye
Use of found objects

This mask incorporates a tradition sometimes used by mask carvers during the fur trade to use coins for aesthetic value. When asked about the coins in this mask the artist said, “I have used paper and metal currency on my masks quite a number of times because I am interested in found objects, and what currency is and isn't - currency only has value when society agrees that it does, so people from another culture or another time only see the coins as objects.” The eyes are American Indian head pennies; buffalo head nickels, and Canadian Loonies.

Detail of Northwest Coast mask by David Neel, showing red, black and turquoise design

Historically the most common colors in Kwakwaka’wakw masks are black, red, and a spectrum of blue-green. Although David Neel used modern acrylic paint for this mask, he incorporated traditional Kwakwaka’wakw colors in his modern work of art.


What is it?  

This Northwest Coast mask is a carved wooden mask made by a contemporary artist from the Pacific Northwest, David Neel. This artwork was made recently but bright colors and design express a contemporary vision of traditional Kwakwka’wakw (kwock-WOCKY-wowk) art. Today many artists carry on the traditions of the past, by creating their own versions of traditional artwork.

Who made it?

This mask was carved and painted by David Neel, a 5th generation native Kwakiutl (Kwa-gee-you-l-th) artist, from British Colombia, Canada. David Neel learned traditional woodworking techniques through a long family line of Kwakwka’wakw artists, who passed their skills down through generations. David Neel comments on his own individual style below.

“I strive to have a unique artistic approach, based on my knowledge of traditional Northwest Coast Native art. I try to create work that underlines the relevance of Northwest Native art as a contemporary medium of expression. I believe that tradition is a foundation to build upon, and not a set of rules to limit creativity.”

What inspired it?

According to the artist, this mask represents the legend of Tsegame, “The Great Magician of the Red Cedar Bark”. The story of Tsegame tells of a great rivalry with another supernatural being, Kinekalak (the Transformer). Both possess an array of powers including the ability to transform into animals. During a great battle, Kinekalak prevails and ties heavy stones to Tsegame’s feet. Tsegame sinks down into the depths of the ocean and into the realm of Lord Komokwa where he is given new supernatural gifts. When Tsegame rises from the ocean, Kinekalak sees the new powers that Tsegame has and recognizes him as his equal. According to the story, Kinekalak and Tsegame then become friends.

Masks have played an important role in Kwakwaka’wakw (kwock-WOCKY-wowk) cultures. Through dances and other performances, masks portray the stories of various animals and supernatural beings. Often times, as the stories themselves, masks have been passed down through generations in attempt to preserve history. Generally, an extremely skillfully-made mask denoted high standing within a tribe and was usually commissioned by a wealthy or important family, however, less wealthy community members also participated in ceremonies by making their own masks or simple instruments.

How is it made?

Individuals in Kwakwaka’wakw (kwock-WOCKY-wowk) cultures, like many Northwestern Coastal tribes, navigated the edge of land and sea. On land they lived among forests of dark green conifers and red cedars. In order to travel up and down the Pacific coastline, they needed to build heavy canoes that could navigate through rivers, islands, and fjords. Cedar’s straight wood and soft grain made it an essential part of Kwakwaka’wakw life; becoming the base for homes, totem poles, canoes, and traditional masks. Woodworkers at the time used stone hammers along with antler and bone wedges as tools to carve and shape the masks. To add color, artists used natural materials like copper oxide or blue clay to make various shades of blue and burnt clamshells to make white paint. This particular mask is made from Alder wood and acrylic paint. It also incorporates the use of American and Canadian coins.