Spotlight: Passing on the torch at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art

Sep 21, 2021

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Amongst the hustle of this booming northern town, sits a school overlooking the valley where history can be found in its making. 

At the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, located on the Coast Mountain College campus in Terrace and traditional Tsimshian territory, First Nations artists of all ages come to learn traditional north coast art. Taught by an impressive fleet of internationally, renowned master carvers and artists, this art school is home to a movement of reviving lost culture and bringing forth a new generation of powerful storytellers. 

"We aren't just educating ourselves, we're educating the world," says instructor and co-founder Stan Bevan, of Tsimshian and Tahltan-Tlingit heritage.  

"People are beginning to see who we are and not only through our past, but our present and future." 

Bevan co-founded the school in 2006 alongside famous artists Ken McNeil and Dempsey Bob, who recently was recognized with a 2021 Governor General's Award for his contributions to the arts. For over a decade, they've experimented with different ways of passing on traditional knowledge while blending it with modern entrepreneurship skills to help their students succeed. 

The Freda Diesing School, named after the Haida artist and carver, has since flourished in a direction beyond their imagination but as time tallies up quickly, they realize their legacy must continue without them — the torch must be passed on. 

For years, Bevan says they've been watching their students carefully to see who could one day step into their roles. Being an instructor isn't just about artistic talent, they need someone who is a patient leader and audaciously upholds their school's value. 

"Our value is about respect for the art, respect for other artists and instructors. It's about learning the art properly, understanding the fundamentals and conducting yourself in a proper way that shows who are you and where you're from," he explains.  

"Our art is inevitably going to change but we want it to develop with integrity." 

Enter Nathan Wilson and his wife Nakkita Trimble, and recently joined Stephanie Anderson, the next wave of instructors to lead the way. As former students and successful artists, Bevan says he is confident that they will propel their school to new heights. 

Wilson, of Haisla descent, grew up in the Prince Rupert area and then moved to Vancouver Island in his youth. In 2009, he started carving with Kwakwaka’wakw and Cree artists there but knew it wasn't his ancestral style. His family came from a prestige line of carvers and he felt called to carry on the tradition back home. 

"When I became an artist, there was a strong pull to come back to the north and learn our traditional art form," he says. 

"Northern artists are very strongly rooted... and Terrace is the hub for surrounding communities to come together and share their ideas, stories and art [so I wanted to be there]. We all lift each other up." 

Enrolling in the program in 2010, Wilson fully immersed himself into his art and went on to exhibit in an array of shows, a trailblazer in creating unconventional pieces. Trimble came through in 2013 after graduating with her Bachelor Fine Arts and became a force in rejuvenating the almost-lost Nisga'a tattooing practices.  

When the talented duo came together, Terrace became home as they started a family. Their dedication and craftsmanship remained infallible, and the founders knew the two embodied what they were looking for and more. The art world rejoiced when they started teaching at Freda Diesing, marking a new chapter for the school. 

Wilson says it's been a grand and humbling adventure learning from the great to pass on a vault of ancestral art knowledge and history. For him, the most challenging aspect had been adapting to each student's level of experience and pace while trying to maintain that high quality of teaching. 

But he perseveres, knowing that empowering the next generation of First Nations artists is an honourable responsibility.  

"Nowadays, we need the arts more than ever. If an artist can make somebody just stop for a few minutes to admire an art piece or to reconnect with their heritage, that's the ultimate goal," he says. 

"Identity is such a big part for people... dipping a paintbrush to create an image can have an incredible impact on a young person just trying to find direction in life and make their way home."