Remembering Bill Reid
August 07th, 2012
He was reportedly raised in the wilderness by a father who didn’t like him and a mother who was “nuts”.
A self-described existentialist who wouldn’t suffer fools, rx Reid once told reporter Doug Toff the only good thing he got from his forced attendance at a Protestant church was the 20 cents he stole out of the quarter his parents gave him for the collection plate. His relations with the Haida were sometimes rock. “The Haida live their lives,” he once said. “I live mine.”
While working as a CBC broadcaster in Toronto, he studied jewelry and engraving at Ryerson to supplement his income, then began investigating his Haida background and Haida art in the 1950s after discovering some long-lost Haida relatives.
In the 1960s, as a carver in gold, silver, wood and bronze, Reid studied at the Central School of Art and Design in London. He soon evolved into the West Coast’s essential link between the work of legendary carver Charles Edenshaw (1837-1920) and his much younger contemporaries.
REID AS ARTIST
Credited with putting BC native art on the international map, Reid initially helped UBC’s Wilson Duff, Harry Hawthorn and new Museum of Anthropology head Audrey Hawthorn to restore and transport totem poles of Tasu, Skedans and other communities for wider appreciation and viewing.
In 1980 he completed Raven and the First Humans, a 4.5 tonne cedar sculpture installed at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. Reid’s bronze killer whale sculpture, The Chief of the Undersea World, was installed outside the Vancouver Aquarium in 1984. Two years later he completed his famous canoe called Luu Tas (Wave Eater) for Expo 86, the same year Doris Shadbolt published her biography, Bill Reid, to be reissued this fall with a new concluding chapter.
Reid was the first living artist to have his work displayed in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris as part of an exhibition pertaining to the ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Reid’s Luu Tas canoe was paddled up the Seine, leading to a native revival of paddling and canoe making on the West Coast.
Described as Reid’s masterpiece by Haida leader Miles Richardson III, who hosted a UBC memorial, Reid’s The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, exists in two bronze versions. “The Black Canoe” is at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC and “The Jade Canoe” is at the Vancouver International Airport.
“Bill always made us proud,” says Richardson. “Very often he made us madder than hell. But he always made us proud.”
REID AS AUTHOR
“As a maker of material things,” Shadbolt told the memorial gathering at UBC in March, “Bill made an important reassertion of the value of the well-made object. The well-made object was sort of a moral imperative in his life.”
Bill Reid’s devotion to the well-made object extended to print. Shadbolt described Reid as a “brilliant and poetic wordsmith” and “one of the best-read persons you could come across.” He illustrated and co-authored several books, most notably Raven Steals the Light with Robert Bringhurst and Indian Art of the Northwest Coast: A Dialogue on Craftmanship and Aesthetics with Bill Holm.
“In Bill Reid,” said publisher Scott McIntyre, “Raven met his match. Bill’s humour was legendary, and when his passion for the well-crafted artifact led to a certain prickliness, it was always overcome by the warmth of his friendship. He was an extraordinary talent, and we are all blessed to have his legacy.”
REID AS ACTIVIST
Arthur Hiller, a Hollywood filmmaker who first knew Bill Reid at the CBC in Toronto, was one of many admirers to cite Reid’s activism on behalf of native self-determination. When Haida were protesting logging on Lyell Island and South Moresby, Reid intentionally withheld completion of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii to help gain government compliance.
“Bill never gave up hope,” according to Hiller, “whether it was fighting his disease or fighting for his causes. He believed social justice would prevail if you keep working for it – and he did. He wasn’t just an idealist in thought. He got in there and did something about it.”
Reid battled Parkinson’s disease for 30 years, greatly assisted in his life and work by his third wife, Martine. Journalist Edith Iglauer Daly, who wrote a Saturday Night profile called “Bill Reid, Mythmaker”, has recalled Reid’s warm and often hilarious humour in the face of his serious malady. “Bill brought delight and knowledge to us all. He was, and is especially, part of that river of humanity that does not die,” says Daly.
The West Coast has not finished saying farewell to Bill Reid. This summer, after Haida ceremonies and feasting, the ashes of North America’s greatest aboriginal artist will be delivered to his mother’s village of Tasu on Haida Gwaii.
Bill Reid died March 13, 1998.
Essay Date: 1998