British Columbia diving pioneer assembled impressive collection of First Nations art

Dozens of works by well-known Northwest Coast artists such as Ellen Neel, Charlie James, Mungo Martin, Robert Davidson and Beau Dick are on display.

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Phil Nuytten was an internationally renowned designer of deep sea diving equipment. But he had an artistic side that was not so well known.

Of Métis descent, Nuytten was an accomplished carver, trained by the legendary Kwakwakaʼwakw artist. Elena Neel. He also had a large collection of Northwest Coast art from artists such as Neel, his grandfather Charlie James and his uncle Mungo Martin, among others.

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Nuytten died on May 13, 2023, at the age of 81.

One Langmann Fine Arts has an exhibition of the Nuytten collection until March 16. Some of it is for sale, but many pieces will go to institutions, including the U’Mista Cultural Center in Alert Bay.

The first thing that catches your eye when entering the exhibition is a giant totem. It was carved by Bill Holm of Seattle, a professor at the University of Washington and author of the seminal 1965 book, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form.

Some people might recognize it because the 10-foot-tall totem pole was located at SeaTac Airport. Nuytten bought it and installed it in his home in North Vancouver.

“His house was like a gallery,” said Jeannette Langmann of Langmann Fine Art. “The totem pole was in his front entrance.”

Holm’s pole is unpainted cedar, but a stunning Ellen Neel totem pole in the exhibit is painted in rich colors of green, red, yellow, black and white. This may also be familiar to visitors because Neel carved one of the totem poles in Stanley Park.

Numan (Old Man) by Don Smith is one of the pieces in Phil Nuytten’s collection at Uno Langmann gallery in Vancouver. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Nuytten loved First Nations art as a child and asked the curator at the Vancouver Museum who could teach him how to carve. They recommended Neel, and 11-year-old Nuytten went to his modest home a stone’s throw from Rogers Sugar to ask him for lessons.

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She was a great teacher. Nuytten Hamatsa Raven’s little totem, Bear Eating Orca Whale is as elegant and colorful as Neel’s own work.

Nuytten was a born entrepreneur. He began diving when he was 11, opened Canada’s first dive shop in Kitsilano when he was 16 and founded several companies, including Nuytco Research Ltd.

Phil Nuytten inside his submarine “Newtsub” in 2012. Photo by Jenelle Schneider /PROVINCE

His most famous invention was the Newtsuit, which allowed divers to reach great depths and became the standard for contained diving suits. He was a consultant to both NASA and James Cameron, the film director who made Titanic.

His business success helped him amass an art collection of a who’s who of Northwest Coast artists, including Robert Davidson, Beau Dick, Dorothy Grant, Henry Hunt, Calvin Hunt, Matt James, Lelooska (Don Smith), Joe and Willie Seaweed and John. Livingston.

Seven pieces from his collection were included in a Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition, The Private Eye, which traveled to the McMichael Gallery in Ontario.

One of them is Don Smith’s Numan (Old Man), a yellow and red cedar mask of an old man’s head with wonderfully bushy eyebrows and beard. It is a dance mask and many parts move, which gives it life.

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“Everything is articulated, even the eyebrows, so he can look happy or sad,” explains Langmann. “It’s really amazing”.

Northwest Coast artist John Livingstone created this unique coffee table for the late Phil Nuytten. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Nuytten commissioned many of the works in his collection, including a unique coffee table by John Livingston.

The round table features carvings of three orcas, representing Nuytten, his wife Mary and daughter Virginia. But what really sets it apart is the center, which has a distinctive nautical feel.

“It has a window in the center,” Langmann said, “that was installed specifically for Phil.”

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“His house was like a gallery,” said Jeannette Langmann of Langmann Fine Art. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

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