Tsimshian artist Leanne Helin works on a piece of jewellery. Helin utilizes a metal-smithing technique called engraving, which she teaches to students in North island College’s Metal Jewellery Design Certificate program. Photo by Marissa Tiel/Campbell River Mirror

Tsimshian artist Leanne Helin works on a piece of jewellery. Helin utilizes a metal-smithing technique called engraving, which she teaches to students in North island College’s Metal Jewellery Design Certificate program. Photo by Marissa Tiel/Campbell River Mirror

Trailblazing First Nations artist passing on trade to students at NIC

Leanne Helin learned hand engraving from her older brother

For First Nation artist Leanne Helin, silversmithing has family ties. A member of the Tsimshian (pronounced SIM-shee-an) First Nation, Helin didn’t start working with jewellery until she was in her 20s. She apprenticed under her older brother, Bill, learning the art of engraving metal at their family business in Parksville.

Helin got very good at finishing pieces and when her brother saw her take an interest, he encouraged her to try engraving.

“It was cool to take all the First Nations animals and incorporate them into various pieces of metal,” she says. “My brother believed in me enough to encourage me to try even though I didn’t think I had any artistic skills.”

Metal smithing became something that allowed her to create something beautiful and connected Helin to her roots.

Her grandparents were Chief of the Gitlan tribe and Chieftaness of the Gitgeese tribe. Her father was chief Hy’emass of the Gitgeese tribal nation and married her mother who is of Norwegian descent despite her grandparents’ wishes.

“His parents were still trying to arrange the marriages and the bloodline,” says Helin. “My mother and father broke out of the tradition of arranged marriages that were still happening then.”

RELATED: North Island College introduces metal jewellery design program

While Helin was born in Prince Rupert, she says her family moved to Vancouver Island when she was in elementary school. Her entire family is good with their hands. Her mom, she says, can paint and draw anything and can pick up any kind of sewing project.

“She’s very spontaneous,” says Helin.

But growing up, she didn’t think she was artistic.

“My older brother, he was talented as soon as he could hold a pencil,” she says. “If I did any art beside him, I was overshadowed by his talent. He got out of a lot of house chores because he was busy drawing.”

‘Every (piece) flows differently,” says Helin. “They all have their own personality.’ Photo by Marissa Tiel/Campbell River Mirror

But it was that older brother, Bill, who she apprenticed under. Her only formal training came from a week-long jewellery repair course through the Gemological Institute of America in California.

“It was really good exposure for me,” she says.

Now the bulk of Helin’s work is custom orders. Out of her studio in Nanoose Bay she creates personalized pieces.

“When I’m starting to work on it for them, knowing their personal input, it evolves differently,” she says. “They mention little things that I try to remember if I have space left over.”

She enjoys using the Tsimshian crests in her work and always using two for balance.

“Something strong and something else keeping it respectable,” she pauses, “delicate.”

Helin is thankful she got her start with her brother learning how a finished piece should look and learned to design right on the metal.

“Every (piece) flows differently,” she says. “They all have their own personality.”

The pieces she creates aren’t that big, usually around an inch, with bracelets being the largest at about 1.5 inches wide and six inches long.

To create her pieces, she explains, the crests are kind of like puzzles. You start by putting the most obvious form – the head – on the metal and go from there, adding the animal’s distinguishing features. Then you keep adding until there’s no room left.

RELATED: Love Medals celebrate acts of kindness

“That was challenging for me just to keep getting it the right space that it looks coordinated so [it] didn’t look totally juvenile.” she says. “It was a lot of practice.”

There were no online reference sites like Etsy or Pinterest and at the time, only a few books on native design existed.

“I was mostly just winging it,” she says. “Art and jewellery is always very forgiving. You can always add something to it.”

Helin has been a pioneer in the West as a female Indigenous jewellery artist and is now taking her knowledge to the classroom. She teaches Northwest Coast First Nations Art & Engraving (I &II) in the eight-month Metal Jewellery Design Certificate program at North Island College’s Campbell River campus. She introduces students to engraving techniques using hand tools.

“Everything is here for them to try,” she says. “Whether you think you’re going to use the hand engraving or not, you have to still try it and you never know. I had no idea I was going to go this far with my craft.”

She was hesitant to teach at first, nervous about public speaking.

“But keeping in mind that I had so many years experience to share was more important than my insecurities,” she says. “It was really good and helped me grow a lot.”

RELATED: Campbell River NIC grad to launch Island-wide silver guild


@marissatiel
marissa.tiel@campbellrivermirror.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

RCMP display some of the fish seized from three suspects who pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act in 2019, in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - RCMP
3 banned from fishing, holding licences after overfishing violations in Gold River area

Mounties seized the group’s 30-foot fishing vessel and all equipment on board at the time

Volunteers sort through bottles and cans during Saturday's fundraiser for hospice. Photo by Mike Chouinard
Comox Valley hospice holds drive-through bottle drive

Bike team is fundraising for the annual Cycle of Life tour on Vancouver Island

The Village of Cumberland is applying for a UBCM grant to help streamline development application processes. Black Press file photo
Cumberland looks to streamline development

“This looks like the best thing we’ve ever applied for.”

Security camera image of 7-Eleven robbery suspect. Photo supplied.
Late-night Courtenay robbery results in 500-plus days in jail

Heatley’s sentence also includes probation, DNA order, firearms ban

A 3.0-magnitude earthquake occurred off Ucluelet just after 12:30 a.m. on April 10 and was reportedly felt as far south as Oregon. (Map via United States Geological Survey)
Quake off Ucluelet reportedly felt as far south as Oregon

Magnitude 1.5 earthquake also reported off Vancouver Island’s west coast hours earlier

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

People walk past the Olympic rings in Whistler, B.C., Friday, May 15, 2020. Whistler which is a travel destination for tourists around the world is seeing the effects of travel bans due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Adults living, working in Whistler, B.C., eligible for COVID-19 vaccine on Monday

The move comes as the province deals with a rush of COVID-19 and variant cases in the community

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
UPDATE: RCMP investigating after child, 6, dies at motel in Duncan, B.C.

The BC Coroners Service is conducting its own investigation into the circumstances around the child’s death

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia’s opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan’s government, but they say Monday’s throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province’s economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

Farnworth said the budget will include details of government investment in communities and infrastructure

FILE - An arena worker removes the net from the ice after the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames NHL hockey game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result, in Vancouver, British Columbia, in this Wednesday, March 31, 2021, file photo. As vaccinations ramp up past a pace of 3 million a day in the U.S, the NHL is in a tougher spot than the other three major North American professional sports leagues because seven of 31 teams are based on Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
Vancouver Canucks scheduled to practice Sunday, resume games April 16 after COVID outbreak

Canucks outbreak delayed the team’s season by eight games

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

Most Read