In conversation with Coast Salish artist Temoseng Elliott

Temoseng Elliot Jr. (photo by Philip Cox)
Temoseng Elliott (photo credit: Philip Cox)

It was an unexpected exchange. Temoseng Elliott, a Coast Salish artist and member of the W̱SÁNEĆ and lək̓ʷəŋən Nations, had accepted a commission to carve five new award plaques for the Faculty of Humanities, and I received a last-minute invitation to drop off some paperwork with a few other colleagues at his family carving shed in WJOȽEȽP (Tsartlip) territory.

We entered his workshop to find him working on a 12-foot-tall Salish house post, carved from old red cedar, that would eventually be raised outside his local school district’s head office. The fragrance from the softwood gently cooled the air while the sun blazed through the windows and against the outer walls.  

As he and I stepped aside to take a few photos on an old film camera that felt right at home in the stillness of the space, we began a conversation about his craft that continued for some weeks after. Here we share a lightly edited version of that conversation, which we felt warranted its own article.


Q.You once mentioned that you learned to carve from your dad, Temosen-THUT Charles Elliott, who learned from his parents. Can tell us more about how this skill and knowledge has been passed down over the generations?

A lot of what I’ve learned about carving did come from my dad. The stories, history, legends and myths we depict in our carving come from our ancestors, grandparents, parents, uncles, aunties and other relatives, if not our own experiences.

There’s a lot that goes into our carvings. One of the many things that goes into it is the designing aspect — our Coast Salish people have our own way of designing. It is a system of designs we use and stick to that is unique to us as Salish people.

When my dad started out, there was no one for him to learn from, or Salish art to see. That was a time when a lot of our cultural practices were severed from our people and forcefully removed from our everyday lives. This was due to colonization, residential school and other colonial impositions.

My dad had to dig deep to bring our Salish designs and carvings back to our nation. The only pieces for him to study from were old carvings our ancestors left behind — and those were stolen and locked up in private collections and museums.

We have come a long way with Salish art and I appreciate all my dad has contributed to its resurgence. I’m fortunate to have teachers and examples of Salish art to learn from. Now it’s me and my brother Matt carrying on the tradition together. 


Q. How do you think your art and carving style differs from your dad's?

I think our different life experiences and life opportunities show the difference in the purpose of our art, just as the similar experiences and opportunities show our similarities in how we purpose our art.

I think we are both very careful because what we feel in our heart for our art that makes us different or similar also reflects on us individually and on our nation as a collective.  

The difference between the style and look of our art and carvings, I would say, used to be just skill and experience, as my dad has a legacy of 60 years’ worth of work and I haven’t even scratched that. But today I’m much more confident in my skill as a carver and artist, having done projects from small carvings to large totem poles. Now I notice differences such as subtle preferences caused by our own personalities — like color choice, depth of carving, layout of shape, execution of designs, the time and patience spent on each piece.


Q. How do you see your own work fitting within Coast Salish traditions? Do you think of your work as contributing to or participating in these traditions?

Our Salish carvings or Coast Salish designs we practice is a traditional form of communication and documentation. Practicing the art carries the traditional form of expression along with us into the future. I see my work as being adaptive to the times of today. Along with my fellow First Nation artists, we’re adapting to the new mediums of today, yet using a traditional expression of voice through design. 

Actually, a lot of my work is being used for traditional functions within our First Nation communities. The stuff that isn’t — the public works or private commissions — are still objects we create depicting, highlighting and documenting sacred subjects and topics, as traditionally.  

The majority of my carvings are being purposed for our cultural practises of today, like funerals, memorials, and other gatherings. I do not share them on social media or make much mention of them outside of our culture. They are too sensitive or sacred. I’d say I spend more time on these carvings than any other type of carving I’ve done. This is my contribution as formerly or traditionally to my community, relatives, family, and nation during those times I’m asked to do that work. 

I think of my public works as a contribution to the communities outside my First Nation community. Here I have the opportunity to share our teachings, history, and stories. I see these as opportunities to improve our understanding of each other. With all of the work me and my brother do, we use a traditional form of communication to honour our topic with respect. To us respect is our most important form of tradition.



Article and feature image by Philip Cox