From opera singing to commissioned art installations and the creation of an “uncentre” for art and decolonization, Newman demonstrates the transformational power of art.
“IF, AT THE VERY START, I had known everything I would have to accomplish in order to complete the project, I would never have believed it was possible,” Carey Newman writes in the book Picking Up the Pieces: Residential School Memories and the Making of the Witness Blanket. “But with perseverance and with the help of many people, I saw it through.”
Carey Newman, artist and Impact Chair, University of Victoria
Newman, whose traditional name, Hayalthkin’geme, means “face of a chief,” refers in the quote to the Witness Blanket. It is an artwork he conceived and created with a team who, for over a year, travelled to 77 residential school sites across Canada to speak with survivors and gather 887 objects, photos, and documents from residential schools. They were then mounted on a strong yet flexible cedar frame into a 12-metre-long, 2.5 metre high monument to the truth in Truth and Reconciliation and to the many people who endured the residential school system and feel its effects today.
The challenges were all-encompassing, from the logistics of travel to the emotional toll on all participants, to the technical and aesthetic questions of how to create a structure that would carry the weight of what it held—literally and figuratively.
Finished in 2014, scores of people have now experienced The Witness Blanket on its nationwide tour or in its permanent home at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. It`s hard to imagine walking away unchanged.
The Witness Blanket, installation by Carey Newman and team
Print of detail of the Witness Blanket by Carey Newman and team
In 2012, Newman saw his father, a residential school survivor, give testimony at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing, and walked away compelled to honour him. The following year, the artist saw a weight seem to lift from his father’s shoulders as he recalled his experiences while standing at the site of his former residential school.
“That process of gathering those pieces and hearing the stories is a moment of pretty significant personal transformation because not only was it about bringing a tangible truth before reconciliation, but it was a chance for me to engage in and learn more about my own family history,” Newman shares in our recent conversation about his new post as Impact Chair in Indigenous Art Practices at the University of Victoria. It’s a position in which Newman, formerly Audain Professor of Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest, plans to further explore the potential for art to not only bear witness and generate transformation, but to push the boundaries of what is considered possible.
It’s a new position reflecting shifts in institutional thinking, and Newman’s path to it is similarly non-traditional.
Born in Victoria in 1975, Newman grew up building forts in the enormous trees surrounding his parents’ Kaltasin Road property on the Sooke waterfront. He and his sisters Marion and Ellen were homeschooled. His mother, Edith, is a textile artist and clothing designer of English, Irish and Scottish descent who fed her children’s interests with books and integrated learning into living—building those tree forts, for instance, would inevitably involve math lessons.
Making his own pair of jeans was one criterion for graduation, says Newman, noting one benefit being the delight he now finds in making Halloween costumes for his 11-year-old daughter, Adelyn—herself the award-winning author of Finding the Language, a book about rediscovering the Kwak’wala language her grandfather could not pass along when it was forbidden at his residential school.
Newman didn’t even understand language loss as a personal impact until the Witness Blanket process, when an elder pointed it out to him. What he did notice growing up was a marked difference in his relationship with his father, beginning when he was 7 years old—the age Victor Newman had been when he was taken to residential school. In his early teens, at his mother’s insistence, father and son underwent counselling and Newman first learned some of the implications of his father’s stolen childhood.
Even with their struggles, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw and Coast Salish master carver Victor Newman was his son’s first and most significant artistic mentor. A nephew of Ellen Neel and descendant of Charlie James, renowned artists both, the elder Newman reclaimed his family’s artistic legacy by studying Northwest Coast art techniques at the Gitanmaax School at ‘Ksan. The younger Newman still has a scar on his thumb from when, at five years old, he learned a valuable lesson about holding tools with care while attempting to make himself a toy car out of scrap wood in his dad’s workshop.
At age 13, his father gifted him with his own set of tools. “That’s when I really sat down and tried to get serious about it with my dad,” Newman says. His first ‘real’ carving project was a Kolus (younger brother to Thunderbird) mask. “I think I still have it actually, somewhere in my basement,” Newman notes.
In his office at UVic, Newman still has a map drawer he bought to hold artworks when he was 12 years old. He purchased it with earnings from print sales after his first foray at the Sooke Fine Art Show. Ever since, Newman’s main source of income has been his art practice, which has included prints, jewelry, carving, metalwork and sculpture.
Opera singing to commissioned art installations
Despite his success with his early artworks, when it came time to consider further study, Newman pursued another family passion. “My artistic interests were so deeply rooted in culture and the mentorship of my father that I didn’t really see university as a place to expand my particular brand of art making,” Newman explains. “It was a tradition, at that time at least, that didn’t exist inside a university institution.”
Following in the footsteps of his sister Marion, an opera singer, Newman studied voice at the Victoria Conservatory of Music and Camosun College, then transferred to the University of Victoria to pursue a degree in music.
It was a busy time. Newman was singing baritone roles with Pacific Opera Victoria, studying piano, and funding his studies with his art practice. “I think it all kind of caught up with me, and I took what I though was the easy way out and put my focus toward my artistic practice and my singing career,” Newman says.
He is still involved with Pacific Opera Victoria—as a board member, he helped to develop the groundbreaking opera Missing, and he donated his time to carve the beautiful acoustic baffle that graces the ceiling of POV’s Baumann Centre.
Pacific Opera Victoria’s carved baffle ceiling by Carey Newman
Ultimately, his art practice won out. In 1996, Newman opened Blue Raven Art Gallery at his parents’ Sooke property and sold work by the three of them. He found success, with his work finding its way into public and private collections around the world. Public commissions were the next logical step.
His first foray was the Spirit Pole project for the Cowichan 2008 North American Indigenous Games.
It was a unique undertaking: Newman—often accompanied by his father—and a team of apprentices travelled to over 47 communities with a 20-foot cedar log. At each stop, the public was invited to take part in its carving, under Newman’s direction.
“We would take people through the processes of how to hold and use a tool, to shave chips off of the log,” he explains. Over the course of its journey, over 11,000 people participated in carving the pole, now at its permanent home outside the Cowichan Aquatic Centre in Duncan.
From the start, Newman saw energy around the project. “The first time we opened up the trailer and set up for people to come carve—I think it was maybe in Lake Cowichan—there was a lineup of people who wanted to do this thing. And they were excited to take their chip with them; they were excited to be taking part in this history-making project.”
Art that resonates with the land
His experience with the Spirit Pole unlocked something in Newman. “I was fed, my energy and my spirit was fed by the project. I think of it as transformational. It really showed me the potential of artistic practice, and art making, collaboration and community engagement, to make change in the world.”
As he instructed and shared his tools, Newman became aware that “there is a power within art and artistic practice to change consciousness, to make people feel things in a different way…when I think about my career, I break it into two parts: there was my early career, where I was working around the commercial market, making art for sale, and what I do now, which is more of a socially engaged practice where I am looking at issues.”
A recent example of this issues-oriented approach, Earth Drums, was unveiled at Cedar Hill Park in Saanich in 2019.
Earth Drums with Carey Newman and viewers in Saanich, September 2019 (photo by Kevin Light Photo)
Three towering cedar box drums depict a wolf, raven and frog respectively. They are fixed to the ground in a way that allows space for people to approach the drums and beat rhythms with their palms against the wood while their feet remain on earth, not concrete.
“That was intentional, because I wanted the music that was made to resonate into the land, into the creek that’s nearby, and hopefully, get people thinking about what their relationship to the land means.”
Explains Newman, “Western paradigms don’t think of the land beneath our feet as having agency but in Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw worldviews, we don’t see ourselves as different from the land. So what we do to the land, we do to ourselves.”
Process and collaboration as art
Newman is exploring the extent of that notion and the integration of Indigenous world views into a broader practice with The Seedling, a project he is undertaking at the University as Impact Chair.
Totem by Carey Newman in Oaklands
A Western Red Cedar will be planted on the grounds of the University of Victoria, Newman will design a pole and 3-D digital software to store the design, and the University will make and raise the pole when the tree is full grown.
The concept seeks to rattle myriad social structures, from planning, institutional and political cycles to land stewardship to legal systems. Says Newman, “Think about an idea like putting a tree or a representative of a tree, on the board of governors,” so it can be protected in perpetuity.
Then there is the question of keeping the tree thriving through increasingly hot, dry summers. Not to mention documenting the art itself. “I’m working with the National Film Board of Canada digital team to figure out how to turn this into a digital story project,” Newman says, even as he grapples with how such a long-reaching project will continue to resonate with future university populations, from governors to students. “Those are the kinds of questions I’m in the midst of asking and having groups of people help me to answer so that this project can continue to grow,” Newman says.
The art is the future totem pole, but it is even more so the process—the collaborations, the discomfort, the questions, revelations and illuminations that lead to transformation.
The unCentre for Arts and Decolonization
And that is also the vision behind Newman’s plans for his position at UVic as Impact Chair. He will be establishing the unCentre for Arts and Decolonization as “a place where more artists, more scholars, more knowledge keepers and activists can come together around change-making” in a variety of areas, from racial injustice to gender violence, global inequality to climate change.
And all the while, the Witness Blanket continues to resonate and grow its impact. Replicas are touring the country, Camosun College created a Virtual Reality Blanket for remote communities, and the CMHR is undertaking conservation and a digitization project.
These ripples are part of a transformational process related specifically to truth and reconciliation. “We can do the same thing for other areas of need,” says Newman. “Our political systems, our economic systems, they’ve led us where we are. Colonialism has led us to the climate crisis that we face. We don’t have very much time left before things are irreparable, and that’s the kind of thing that I want to be engaging with in my artistic practice. I know the challenges are global, but that’s the purpose, right? And I think—not think, I know—the arts have a very, very prominent role to play in that process of transformation, figuring out how we make sweeping systemic change.”
Find the Witness Blanket online at witnessblanket.ca /blanket and watch the 2019 documentary Picking Up the Pieces: the Making of the Witness Blanket at humanrights.ca/story/picking-up-the-pieces-the-making-of-the-witness-blanket
Aaren Madden is grateful for the many opportunities for learning and transformation she has found in the work and words of artists like Carey Newman.