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Bill Reid immersed himself in Haida culture

New book examines artwork in chronological order

Bill Reid Collected by Martine J. Reid (Douglas & McIntyre, April 2016). Paperback, 168 pages.

Although Bill Reid’s mother, Sophie Gladstone Reid, was a member of the Kaadaas gaah Kiiguwaay, Raven/Wolf Clan of T’anuu on Haida Gwaii, he himself was raised worlds away in that last bastion of Western civilization, Victoria, B.C.

The oldest example of Reid’s work that exists, a miniature tea set he made at the age of 12 for his sister Peggy, shows both his influences as a child of Western culture and the “well-made” work ethic of a future master Haida craftsman.

In her new book, Bill Reid Collected, Martine J. Reid chronicles how her husband developed his unique style as an artist, respectful of Haida tradition yet intent on maintaining it as a living art form.

North Shore News: It’s wonderful to see Bill Reid’s work laid out in chronological order in the new study.

Martine J. Reid: Yes, thank you. I thought it was a good idea when the publisher asked me to do the book and it is something that I’ve been thinking about it.

North Shore News:: Growing up in Victoria Bill lived far away from Haida Gwaii. Was he essentially cut off from his roots during his youth?

Martine J. Reid: Pretty much so. I think they had regular visits from their Haida relatives. His mother had several sisters and he had an uncle, Percy Gladstone, who had a masters in economics.

North Shore News:: Even at this distance Bill, as a child, showed an innate ability to work with his hands and carve.

Martine J. Reid: Yes, this is what was astonishing. He created several little pieces and models of boats and a tea set that we have on display at the Bill Reid Gallery which is carved out of blackboard chalk. It’s really minuscule and was kept in a tiny little matchbox. It is painted with nail polish. He made it for his sister. Peggy was a year younger than he was. They show his talent and power of concentration, his love of miniature and his sense of humour. It’s pink. His sister loved pink and has worn pink clothes all her life so he was really making fun of her.
One of the reasons they did not have much contact with the Haida world was because his mother was a survivor of the residential schools. She had buried everything Haida and did not want to speak about it and her roots although she was raised in the Haida language. On her deathbed actually some Haida words were coming back to her. It was quite something to witness. But there was this split from the Haida world as she was trying to emulate all the western values to raise her children.

North Shore News: At 23, Bill reconnected with Haida culture when he travelled north to visit his grandfather Charles Gladstone.

Martine J. Reid: That was his first visit since early childhood. His grandfather did not speak very much English and of course Bill did not speak very much Haida but he had a wonderful memory of this encounter. His grandfather, one of the last silversmiths and a boat builder, had been educated by Charles Edenshaw, his maternal uncle, and it had a very profound impact on Bill.

North Shore News: The vitality of the Haida art form had diminished over time but Bill began learning and working in the tradition and then adding his own ideas as well.

Martine J. Reid: Yes, but before that as you know he made a living as a radio announcer and eventually ended up in Toronto where he took a course in goldsmithing. By accident, actually, he walked by a poster in Toronto advertising a course in goldsmithing and jewelry design. The memories he had of the bracelets his grandfather and other relatives made had a big impact on him.
The radio announcer’s job was a very dull job for him. He thought it was boring – he always said it was like talking to yourself in a broom closet. He became a jeweller during the day and a radio announcer at night. This is how he started his career really.
At the same time he went to the Royal Ontario Museum where they had a totem pole that came from his grandmother’s village T’anuu. This totem pole I think was acting as a portal for him to come back to the West Coast to reactivate his memory of his ancestry. He began by familiarizing himself with the iconography of the art form and this is how it all started.

North Shore News: He had worked for many years as a radio announcer.

Martine J. Reid: He worked for more than 10 years at the CBC. He was a very literate man. In Victoria he had read everything you could read in the main library. He was a profoundly literary man. That was my life with him - listening to beautiful poetry read through his beautiful voice.

North Shore News: Where did you meet Bill?

Martine J. Reid: I met Bill in Vancouver when I came from France in 1975 as a student at UBC to do my doctorate there in anthropology.

North Shore News: UBC’s commissions gave Bill the opportunity to become a full-time artist.

Martine J. Reid: That’s correct. He created the Haida village and he apprenticed with Mungo Martin, a Kwakwaka’wakw carver who was working at the provincial museum in Victoria and that was his only training in wood carving. What’s important to know about Bill is he was first a goldsmith – a jeweller, who became a carver, and then he became a sculptor. This is a very rare trajectory, really, when you look at it. Maybe Cellini was one of those, he did the Salt Cellar in gold that is in the Vienna museum and of course the Bronze Door that we know in Italy.
Bill worked with Mungo Martin only for two weeks. A very short training. They were restoring a pole. There’s no way two people can work on the pole so you have the master carver on one side and the apprentice is asked to do the exact opposite side. Based on that the Museum of Anthropology trusted him to recreate a section of a Haida village on the grounds of the UBC museum which he did with one assistant Doug Cranmer. Over three years they created seven poles and two Haida houses which are now displayed in the Museum of Anthropology.

North Shore News: His favourite material to work with was 22 karat gold.

Martine J. Reid: One of his favourites. After that, of course, it’s cedar although he loved boxwood as well but gold has so many properties. There’s a sensual quality to the metal and there’s also the fact that gold has such mysterious origins, when you work with it you don’t know where it actually comes from. Bill always imagined that maybe it was some cargo that had been stolen and melted down so his work consisted of bringing it back to life. It is a malleable metal and with the technique of repoussé which gives it relief and depth – a sort of life that was very attractive to Bill.

North Shore News: Bill worked in a wide range of sizes from miniature pieces to large scale art.

Martine J. Reid: This was actually one of the remarkable qualities of 19th century Northwest Coast art. When you look at the miniature scale of a mountain goat horn handle, for example, and a totem pole, Bill always compared these as exquisitely huge and monumentally small. This was very much in keeping with this incredible art style which had been ignored for too long. One of Bill’s goals was not only to make these things as they were made in the past, of course, with a new technology and new vision but also to bring it to the attention of the world because when Northwest Coast art was first collected in the 18th century it was considered as artificial curiosities. Not as art because “savages don’t make art.”

North Shore News: Near the end of the book you describe the exhibit in Paris in 1989 where the canoe, Lootaas (Wave-Eater), travelled down the Seine River.

Martine J. Reid: That was absolutely extraordinary. Bill was convinced that the canoe was perhaps the origin of what we call the form line art and the ovoid and when you look at the canoe in cross-section maybe you would be able to look at the origin of the art form.
Bill’s creative journey was a quest to realize his passion with a well-made object but also to go back to the source of it. Why is this civilization so art oriented compared to many other indigenous groups in Canada? The canoe was a way for him to explore the source of this art form. He made several prototypes because no one had made a canoe for over a century before he made the 50-foot canoe, the Lootaas. It was paddled back to Haida Gwaii by a team of mainly Haida paddlers. It was an amazing journey which had an impact on recreating the tribal journeys on the coast.
1989 was a very important year for the French. It was the bicentennial of the French revolution. The Musée de l’Homme was creating an exhibition to honour the famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss who had written about Bill in the past and they had become friends. Lévi-Strauss said he wanted Bill’s work to be represented there. This was quite extraordinary because it was the first time a living artist would be presented in the Musée de la homme and Bill said, “OK but I want the Lootaas to be there.”
This 50-foot canoe travelled to France. Not only did he want the canoe to be there but he wanted it paddled with a contingent of Haida paddlers from the mouth of Seine River in Rouen up the Seine to Paris and, of course, what Bill wants Bill gets.
Bill didn’t like museums very much because he thought they were too static. You don’t see the life of the art. He wanted the Lootaas to be proof that the Haida culture was alive. This has always been his goal. It was a living art form and here we had it in motion.


Bill Reid Off the Cuff playlist (A weekly gleaner of Internet sources and other media):

Lootaas In Paris, 1989
(Carey Linde photos)

CBC announcer Bill Reid starts selling jewelry in 1956

Celebrating Aboriginal Heritage Month:
Mungo Martin and UBC’s Early Totem Pole Collection

“Mythical Icons,” Haida Gwaii artist Bill Reid, 1989

Haida Art – Northern Villages Parts 1 and 2

Haida Art – Central Villages Parts 1 and 2 watch?v=un8yKp4d9QA

Haida Art – Southern Villages Parts 1 and 2

The Bill Reid Centre