Wayne Bell has always been one-of-a-kind.
From a young age, he was undertaking physical feats that his older siblings and cousins would shy away from and he could perform First Nations traditional dances that he was never taught.
So it was no surprise that by five-years-old, the boy from the Mamalilikulla Nation was discovering a lost art form.
As a child, Bell was shifted around between both sets of grandparents to protect him from being taken away to a residential school.
Until he was five, Bell lived with grandparents Henry Bell and Ada Kwa Nees, before moving in with his other set of grandparents – Daniel Glendale and Katy Ferry – until he was 10.
His grandparents, as well as his Auntie May Henderson, taught him the basics of cedar weaving but Bell said he was blessed with a real knack for the art form.
“It’s a real old art, it was gifted to me,” Bell says. “I taught myself. I used to play with branches and vine when I was very young.”
Bell says cedar weaving is so old that his ancestors were weaving before wood carvings ever came into the equation and before the invention of the lightbulb.
But he says the art form was lost when potlatches were banned in the 1900s. And after that, Bell says his people were afraid to weave out of fear their artifacts would be taken away and burned.
“A lot of people weren’t weaving and when they were weaving, they did it behind closed doors or windows because of how it used to be,” Bell says. “You had to do it behind locked doors and closed windows because of the residential schools. If it was found, they would burn it.”
But Bell, who moved to Campbell River in 2000 from Vancouver, encouraged people here to take up the art, without fear of punishment.
“We’ve been weaving for over 10,000 years but when I first came to Campbell River there was no one weaving. Now there’s weavers all across the coast,” Bell says. “I broke the door right open. I lit a fire and got everyone weaving.”
Bell had been teaching weaving in schools on the Lower Mainland for about five years. He caught the teaching bug from his grandmother, Ferry, who brought Bell along with her as she would teach weaving, dancing and cooking to students in schools across the coast.
“She’s the one who brought us all over Vancouver Island,” Bell says. “We opened up schools, we opened up gyms. We went to Stanley Park once for Aboriginal Day and we did dances and taught people how to fillet fish.”
And Bell stood out among his relatives when it came to weaving.
“I was 10 years old and I was the only one who could make long strips with my hands out of the cedar,” he says. “Everyone else was using scissors but I could do it without scissors. I could just use my hands. I’ve got a knack for it – the peeling and cutting. I’m the only one who can peel cedar like a machine.”
And his art, which ranges from rose rings with a vine to go around the finger, to cedar dolls, to baskets, blankets, and shoes, hasn’t gone unnoticed.
One of his pieces, an eagle mask, is in the Parliament buildings in Ottawa.
“I’m recognized for doing one of the oldest pieces of art in the world because all of the materials come from nature, they’re not bought from the store,” Bell says.
His work also captured attention at a more local level.
Bell has been working with the Arts Council, Museum at Campbell River and Greenways Land Trust to teach people how to use invasive plant species, particularly ivy, in creating art projects and at the same time, helping to remove the harmful species from local watersheds.
Bell teaches his cedar weaving – which includes a cedar pull – as well as weaving with ivy, through workshops at the museum.
He received permission in 2000 from hereditary Chief George Quocksister to do the cedar harvesting and pass on the art of weaving through his teachings.
Since then, Bell has been working with School District 72 to teach students in several Campbell River schools the art of weaving, which he’s found to be a form of therapy for some of the children.
“There were kids who were very hurt and kids coming to school who are hungry and they’re telling me how they’re feeling and that they’re hungry,” Bell says. “This has opened up a lot of kids and opened up a lot of healing. That’s why they pulled me in; it was to help the kids cope.
“I’m showing all the kids how to weave; I’m having fun,” Bell adds.
He’s also passing down the tradition to his own children, daughters Catherine, 19, and Norine, 15, and son Norman, 21.
Norine has even been accompanying Bell on his school trips and taking up teaching herself.
“She’s been doing it since she was three,” Bell says. “I had her in a child pack and I would take her out to the woods when I was harvesting. She makes hummingbird masks and she created her own top hat for Easter with bunny ears. She’ll come in to the schools and help me.”
Bell says her talents, like his, are inherited and he credits his family for everything he’s achieved.
“It’s thanks to (Auntie) May, thanks to (grandmother) Katy Ferry, thanks to my mom, Catherine Bell,” Bell says. “If it wasn’t for those ladies we wouldn’t be doing art because they’re the ones who had us, gave us life.”