No other contemporary Northwest Coast artist has
received the critical acclaim accorded Bill Reid. Reid's reputation as an artist derives
in part from the pivotal role he has played in the rebirth of northern art. In 1948, when
Reid decided to emulate his grandfather, Charles Gladstone, and become a silversmith and
goldsmith, he did so not only by training as a jeweler but by studying and analyzing old
pieces stored in museums.As an expert jeweler he introduced complex traditional European
jewelry techniques (e.g.repousse) to the manufacture to North west Coast metalwork. In
fact, no other Northwest Coast Artist who works in precious metals has the range of
techniques that Reid commands. In analyzing museum specimens, Reid along with Bill Holm,
has been largely responsible for the modern understanding of the principles of Northern
two-dimensional design. Thus Reid was the first Northern artist born in the twentieth
century to comprehend the formal rules of this complex intellectualized art tradition, the
principles of which had been lost to the few remaining Haida artists who practiced their
craft in argillite and silver. Another facet of Reid's role in the revitalization of
Northern art has been that of a communicator , but a communicator with a difference,
someone inside the art yet with skills honed by ten years in the broadcasting industry,
Bill 's abilities as a wordsmith have provided us with a passionate inside look at this
art, a counterpoint to Bill Holm's formal analysis. Not only has Reid shared his
understanding of Haida art with the public through the written word,film ,and his work in
wood, silver, gold and other more or less exotic materials, he has also passed on his
skills to younger artist. While it can be argued that Reid's stature as an artist must
await a critical judgment of his work, something that has not yet been done, without
question he is the bridge between the likes of Charles Edensaw and Robert Davidson . In
this role, as connector, link, an active intelligence that has revived and carried on a
remarkable art tradition, Bill Reid's greatness is secure.
Alan Hoover and Kevin Neary
"Art can never be understood, but can only be seen as a kind of magic, the most
profound and mysterious of all human activities. Within that magic, one of the deepest
mysteries is the art of the Northwest Coast -- a unique expression of an illiterate
people, resembling no other art form except perhaps the most sophisticated calligraphy."
Bill Reid in "Silent Speakers: The Arts of the Northwest Coast,"
by Martine J. Reid. The Spirit Sings. Artistic Traditions of Canada's First People.
McClelland and Stewart, Glenbow Museum, 1988.
Canadian Museum of Civilization
Shape of Frogs to Come
by Barry Herem
(written for the Seattle Art Museum Ethnic Art Newsletter
and reproduced here by permission of the author)
|Working on a model of
The Spirit of Haida Gwaii
Bill Reid, the most famous and influential Northwest Coast artist in our time, died on
March 13, 1998 after a 30-year struggle with Parkinson's Disease. He was 78 and like the
great cedar trees he honored for their place in the arts of the Haida was, in his
distinguished fifty-year career, a nurse log of fame to the arts of the Northwest Coast as
well as to many contemporary artists in the style he championed. A man of many skills and
broad vision, his work, especially his monumental bronzes, cut a unique and celebrated
path into the international world of public art. No one who has seen his five-ton
"The Black Canoe" (i.e. "The Spirit of Haida Gwaii") at the
Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., or its near equivalent, "The Jade Canoe"
at the Vancouver International Airport, can doubt the regal presence of Reid's muse. Lit
with the brilliance of Haida forms and myths, he made them fresh, persuasive and
meaningful in compelling modern images rendered not only in bronze, but also in wood,
fabric, drawings, prints, and most of all in a legacy of gold jewelry, which genuinely
"beggars all description". In effect, his monumental work grew from a mastery of
Bill Reid was widely honored in his life and, as has been suggested by the Canadian
press, will certainly retain his renown not only because he was a significant artist but
also because of his personal charisma and star-power as an individual. Testimony of this
came on the evening of his memorial, held March 24th in the vast halls and corridors of
Arthur Erickson's striking Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in
Vancouver. In effect a State funeral, it began when a silent crowd of many hundreds parted
to make way for a Haida canoe, borne by fourteen of Reid's closest associates in life, as
it was carried to the Great Hall's 60-foot northern wall of glass. Here it was set down
amidst a host of overlooking totems, beneath a landscape of sea and mountains, below the
setting sun. In the canoe stood an antique carved Haida chest containing Reid's cremation
ashes. A crimson and cobalt-blue button blanket emblazoned with the artist's hereditary
crest of Raven-Wolf lay over the chest. Speechmaking, encomiums, remembrances, tributes,
stories of the artist's life -- ribald, comical and poignant -- began; live music, dances,
songs -- recordings of Reid's rich and distinguished voice in eloquent essays of his own
making -- began.
As memorable as its setting, was the assemblage of Canada's pre-eminent in the arts,
government and society, both Native and non, which Reid's passing brought together.
Speakers included Ian Waddell, B.C.'s Minister of Culture; Philip Owen, the Mayor of
Vancouver; Miles Richardson II (the hereditary Haida Chief of Reid's native clan); Dr.
George MacDonald, President of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Quebec; broadcaster
David Suzuki; Alfie Scow, retired Native judge of B.C.'s Provincial Court; architect
Arthur Erickson; artists and writers, George Rammell, Robert Bringhurst, Don Yeomans,
Doris Shadbolt (Reid's biographer), and Bill Holm. Appreciative letters were read from
Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, and from French anthropologist Claude
Many offered highly anecdotal glimpses of Reid's protean character. George Rammell told
of the artist's reaction upon discovering that he had covertly sculpted Reid's own face on
one of the figures for the bronze "Black Canoe": Reid angrily hacked it off.
Carver Don Yeomans described how, after an upset with Reid, the artist inveigled
Yeomans to visit him at his home, where he spontaneously offered an extra thousand dollars
beyond its normal selling price for one of Yeoman's masks in order that the young artist
might extend his visit a while. With feeling, veteran CBC broadcaster, David Suzuki,
announced before all that Reid's bright, and no doubt ironically amused, spirit was in the
great hall that night with everyone. Thus the stories and commentary continued for eight
hours, from four in the afternoon to midnight, ultimately combining the impression of a
great, shambling potlatch with the pleasure of an intimate party of old friends in the
creation of a notable and very human historic event.
As voices spoke, night came on, and beneath the lights of Canadian film crews, the
great glass-sheathed and totem-filled museum hall glowed with the amber lambency of one of
Reid's own golden creations. Tributes came to a conclusion, the great canoe with its
honored remains was carried away, and assembled guests retired to a fine late-night feast
outside the museum proper in a Haida-style house. As if to underscore the entire event,
the great totemic figure of the house which looked down on the crowd, so classically Haida
in their restraint and aura of wonderment, had been carved by Reid himself at the outset
of his career more than thirty years before.
BILL REID 1920-1998
One of Canada's foremost artists, Haida artist
BILL REID, an outstanding gold and silversmith turned sculptor, was proclaimed
a National Living Treasure and was instrumental in inspiring a people to
reclaim their cultural heritage.
Collected internationally and much-honored,
Bill Reid created, among his best known sculptures, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii
at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. (The Black Canoe, 1991) and at the
Vancouver International Airport (The Jade Canoe, 1996).
Building upon the broad range of his
expression, Bill Reid translated his original designs of animal crests into
limited edition silk screen or woodcut prints.
COPPER - Among the Northwest Coast First
Nations, the ultimate symbol of wealth, power and prestige was (and still is)
the Copper. a keystone-shaped shield made of beaten copper sheets and
decorated with a crest design. They were nore, had names and their symbolic as
well as their material values were very high. Its color, like that of the
salmon, connotes wealth.
The Spirit of Haida Gwaii
Spirit of Haida Gwaii, Bill Reid's largest and most
complex sculpture, is displayed at the river end of the Grand Hall.
As if heading for the shoreline of the coastal village, the Spirit
of Haida Gwaii represents a Haida canoe crammed with a
bewildering variety of paddlers and passengers. The white sculpture
is the original plaster pattern used to cast the bronze
sculpture at the Canadian
Embassy in Washington, D.C. The plaster-cast was acquired by the
Museum through the generosity of Maury and Mary Margaret Young of
The Spirit of Haida Gwaii features Raven and Eagle, the
two principal Haida lineages that are coequal and represent two
halves of a whole. The sculpture encompasses mythical creatures,
animals, men and women, who together symbolize not just one culture
but the entire family of living beings. The canoe is filled to
overflowing with creatures who bite and claw one another as they
doggedly paddle along.
From left to right, the creature sitting in the bow is Grizzly Bear,
facing Bear Mother. Between them are their two Bear cub offspring,
creatures that grew out of a children's poem by A.A. Milne. Next
are: Beaver, who lived on the ocean floor hoarding all the fresh
water and fish in the world; Dogfish Woman, with a great hooked
beak, gill slits on her cheek, and a pointed head; and Mouse Woman,
the traditional guide to those who travel from the human world to
the non-human realms of Haida mythology.
At the stern is the steersman, Raven; he seems intent on manoeuvring
the boat in a particular direction, but he may change course as his
whim dictates. Beneath Raven's wing is a human figure, the grudging
oarsman; he represents all the common people who labour to build and
rebuild, stoically obeying orders and performing tasks allotted to
them. Arched across the centre of the boat is Wolf, with his hind
claws in Beaver's back and his teeth in Eagle's wing. Beneath Eagle
is Frog. The prominent central figure is a shaman, the Haida chief
Kilstlaai. As a symbol of authority he holds a speaker's staff; on
the top of the staff is Killer Whale.
Commenting on where this boat may be heading, Bill Reid says:
There is certainly no lack of activity in our little boat, but
is there any purpose? Is the tall figure who may or may not be the
Spirit of Haida Gwaii leading us, for we are all in the same boat,
to a sheltered beach beyond the rim of the world as he seems to be
or is he lost in a dream of his own dreaming? The boat moves on,
forever anchored in the same place.
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- Bill Reid :
Beyond the Essential Form (Museum Note, No 19) ~ Ships
in 2-3 days
- Karen Duffek / Paperback / Published 1986
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