Maria Elfreda “Freda” Diesing 1925-2003
Freda Diesing began carving when she was 42 years old, soon earning a reputation as one of the senior Haida carvers and teachers of her generation. In addition to her skill at carving Freda was also accomplished at the traditionally female arts of button blankets and jewellery. She is particularly known for her carved wooden masks, many of which depict the faces of Haida women embellished with hair, shell, buckskin and beads. She also created several original works of art designed for silk-screen or serigraph printing. She generously contributed many works of art to local communities.
Freda studied at the Vancouver School of Art in Vancouver, British Columbia and at the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the historic village of ’Ksan in Hazelton, British Columbia. She later taught her art at that same school in ’Ksan and also at the University of Southeast Alaska in Sitka, USA. Freda was always willing to pass on her knowledge of her crafts.
A Northwestern British Columbia Legacy
Freda Diesing was an exceptional carver, artist, teacher and mentor. She loved to teach and to share her passion. Many say Diesing’s greatest legacy is in the students who have followed her. Her students include many of the most acclaimed artists working in First Nations art today. The art school at Northwest Community College in Terrace, British Columbia, was named “The Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art” in her honour in September of 2006.
Freda left her mark in her birthplace of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada. Her first totem pole was based on an old photograph and erected at Prince Rupert in 1974. In 1987 she led a project to carve two traditional totem poles for the Tsimshian community of Kitsumkalum near Terrace, BC. Most of the artists who assisted her were women – groundbreaking for the traditionally male craft of totem pole carving. One of her poles can be seen in Moose Tot Park in Prince Rupert, BC; another is in Terrace, BC at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Station. Her poles were the first poles to be erected in 150 years. She also designed and carved the house front panel at the Prince Rupert Hospital, in Prince Rupert BC.
National and International Acclaim
Her works have been showcased in many galleries and museums across Canada including the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, The Museum of Northern BC in Prince Rupert, The Macintosh Gallery at the University of Western Ontario, and The Anthropology Museum at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She was featured as a Haida Artist of note in the televised series “Ravens and Eagles”. Her segment was titled “On the Trail of Property Woman”.
By 1980, Diesing’s work was included in the groundbreaking exhibition “Legacy - Tradition and Innovation in Northwest Coast Indian Art” that was assembled by the Royal British Columbia Museum. The Legacy show later toured to other countries and showcased her culture’s art and history to the world. One of the first female carvers on the modern Northwest Coast, she joked about just how hard it is to complete the top 40 feet of one of her endless and breathtaking totem poles.
She received numerous awards for her art and for her work in helping to inspire a revival of the Northwest Haida Arts. She received an honorary diploma from The Northwest Community College in 2000, another honorary doctorate from the University of Northern British Columbia in May 2002 and in March of 2002 she was presented with the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation award by then Governor General Michelle Jean.
Freda is descended from a distinguished Haida Eagle family on her mother’s side. Her great-grandfather was one of the last great Haida carvers of the 19th Century, before carving totem poles and the “potlatch” ceremony were banned by the government. One of his totem poles can be seen next to the CNR station in Jasper, Alberta Canada.
Haida Eagle Ancestry
Freda was born in Prince Rupert, British Columbia on June 2 1925 to Flossie and Frank Johnson. After Frank passed away, Flossie married Geoff Lambly, who move the family to Terrace British Columbia in 1934. Flossie and Geoff had a daughter together, a sister for Freda, who they called Mary Roberta “Bobbie” Lambly. Bobbie is my grandmother.
Freda with her parents Frank and Flossie Johnson in 1927. Flossie’s Indian name means she whose voice is obeyed.
My Great Grandmother Flossie Johnson Lambly attended potlatch ceremonies growing up and with regard to native cultural artefacts such as masks and button blankets she said, “(They) were not used very much in those days, because the missionaries were trying to make them leave their Indian ways and live like white people.” Since those days, now a generation past, her people and culture have enjoyed worldwide acceptance. “It has been a revival of carving and a preserving of culture”, Diesing said proudly.
Freda was descendant from the Eagle Clan of Haida. Her Haida name was “Skil Kew Wat” It has two translations – ‘Magical Little Woman’ or ‘Property Woman’. My favourite is Magical Little Woman; my auntie was not a very large woman and had such a lovely tinkling laugh and merry eyes. I always felt that name suited her very well.
The medium that I love most is her printed design. Freda stayed true to the Haida design traditions and kept her work in the traditional colours of Black, Red and Blue-Green.
I am so pleased to be able to share Auntie Freda’s printed designs with you.
Great Niece of Freda Diesing