David Lyle Neel (1937-1961) was the eldest son of artist and carver Ellen May Neel (née Newman, 1916-1966). He is also the grandson of the celebrated carver Charlie James (abt. 1875-1938). David spent his early years in Alert Bay. After he moved to Vancouver, he learned to carve along side his mother and her uncle Mungo Martin (abt. 1879-1962). Newspaper articles of the period suggest that throughout the 1950s David played a lead role in Ellen Neel's carving and retail business "The Totem Arts Studio". In 1954, the City of Vancouver commissioned David to carve "The World's Smallest Totem Pole" for visiting comedian Bob Hope. The following year, David worked in collaboration with his mother and siblings in the production of a series of large-scale poles for the Westmount Mall in Edmonton. Mungo Martin, during his 1954 potlatch, invested David with the name Gla-Gla-Kla-Wis.
David was also among the first Kwakiutl artists to take art lessons at Euro Canadian institutions. He took painting classes on Saturday afternoons at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and news accounts indicate that in 1950 he won a scholarship from The Vancouver School of Art, the precursor of Emily Carr University. By the late 1950s, his work art often expressed Kwakiutl subject matter though he used Western painting conventions. David Lyle Neel is most noted for his painting of a Hamasta and a Thunderbird pole that appears on the cover of a special edition of The Native Voice, published in 1958.
Although David was primed to lead the Northwest Coast art world in the 1960s, he died in September 1961 within days of his twenty-fourth birthday and the course of Northwest Coast Art changed forever. David Lyle Neel is the father of photographer, carver, painter, and jewelry-maker David Anthony Neel (b. 1960). David Lyle's grandchildren Edwin (b. 1990) and Ellena Neel (b. 1992) learned to carve from their father David A. Neel and have studied art at Emily Carr University. Through their work Gla-Gla-Kla-Wis's legacies live on.
By Carolyn Butler Palmer, Ph.D.