A Sense of Welcome and Partnership: Ned Bear Carves Pawakan Pole at St. Thomas University

During the next week, Ned Bear will be working in the upper courtyard on a large woodcarving in his preferred studio space, the outdoor environment.

The nationally acclaimed First Nations artist is carving a 1,700 pound log salvaged after Tropical Storm Arthur into a Pawakan Pole. Once finished, the university will plant it outside McCain Hall, below the windows of the president’s office.

“Pawakan, loosely translated, means spirit guide or spirit helper,” Bear says. “Normally, I would just carve a face in the tree and say ‘this is Pawakan’s spirit and this is the spirit of the tree,’ but this one will be a little bit more elaborate.”

Ned Bear is best known for his sculptural works offering a contemporary interpretation to traditional First Nation spiritual beliefs. He expresses this in hand-carved masks as well as through his Land Art—sculptural works in a natural environment. He also sculpts figure-forms in natural materials such as marble and limestone.

Dan Robichaud works in STU’s Aboriginal Student Services. He says it’s an honour to have Ned Bear on campus and to have one of his works displayed here.

“When it’s installed, I see it as a place for an outside classroom for teaching. I hope it’s well utilized by individuals and by groups, for circles, for prayer, for a moment of meditation before continuing on the rest of their chaotic day.”

He says having Bear carve the log in the courtyard is a great way for the campus community to be exposed to a glimpse of Aboriginal culture. Plus, he says, it adds a little curiosity to people’s daily routines.

“It’s a diversion from the regular grind of academics and everything else.”

Ned Bear was at STU earlier in the semester as artist in residence. Students watched him carve masks and he explained some of his creative process.

An internationally renowned artist, Bear has participated in numerous group and solo shows. In 2006, he won first prize at the prestigious Face the Nation competition at the UC Davis Design Museum in San Diego. He was awarded a fellowship from the Smithsonian Institute in New York City that same year and a residency with the Gibraltar International Artist Residency at Toronto Island the following year. He worked in a cooperative project for the 2010 Winter Olympics, having participated with an Atlantic native Artists “Group of 10” on an free-standing public sculpture placed in Whistler, B.C.

Bear has also made significant contributions as a high school art teacher in Native arts and culture programs, a fine arts curator, a guest speaker and as a fine arts juror. He has served as the director of education for Ekpahaq First Nation community in Fredericton, and as a past member of the New Brunswick Arts Board.

“I think it’s important for cultures to relate to each other and communicate,” Bear says. “This Pawakan is just my contribution to that mission.”

Robichaud says having the Pawakan Pole on campus will also offer a cultural connection to the many First Nations students on campus.

“It’ll be a big visual for First Nation students who land here. It’ll be a sense of welcome and it shows partnership.”