Words of an Artist

Bill Reid, the extraordinary Haida sculptor, was also an impressive writer.

I met Bill Reid only once, in Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) in 1990. I was at the Copper River, on the northeast end of Moresby Island where the blueback—young, two-year-cycle sockeye salmon—were running, and Bill was walking along the trail bordering the estuary, where the gill nets strung across the many river channels of this traditional Skidegate Haida fishing site gleamed and undulated like great beaded necklaces in the Copper’s currents.

He was tall as a Douglas fir, and he wore gumboots like the rest of us, and jeans, and a Cowichan sweater to keep out the drizzle; and when he inched his way down a muddy little culvert from the trail to the sandy tidal flats, and I was inching my way up the same culvert, we nodded to each other. He looked serious and concentrated and, yes, regal. And the first thing that struck me was how, well, “white” he looked. I had not yet internalized the idea that there are many blue-eyed, blond, even going-on-white-haired Haidas in Haida Gwaii, and it took me a while to realize that the greatest Haida carver of the second half of last century looked like a Swede.

Bill Reid was born in Victoria, British Columbia, on January 13, 1920. His mother was Sophie Gladstone, a Haida from Skidegate, one of the two still populated Haida villages, and his father was William Ronald Reid, a native of Michigan, of German and Scottish immigrant stock. When he was six, the family returned to the frontier village of Hyder, Alaska, and Bill attended elementary school. When he was 13, he and Sophie went back to Victoria, and Bill lost, after this separation, all personal contact with his father. After graduating from high school and spending a year at Victoria College, he took a job as a radio announcer, first in Kelowna, then in Ontario and Quebec, and finally in Vancouver.

Reid was brought up by Sophie to think of himself as a white middle class Canadian. Sophie had undergone the infamous residential school experience at Coqualeetza, near Chilliwack, where their native language was beaten out of the “Indian” children and their culture was declared heathen and barbarian, and Sophie resolutely educated her three children in Victorian/European manners and habits commensurate with the “assimilationist” doctrine promoted by the federal Indian Affairs Department. Reid writes, in Solitary Raven: The Essential Writings of Bill Reid, that he did not imagine himself to be anything other than WASP until his teens, and that Haida culture and its art held no sway over him prior to his first adult visit to Haida Gwaii when he was 23 and met his maternal grandfather, Charles Gladstone, in Skidegate.

Reid enrolled at Ryerson Institute of Technology in Toronto in 1948 to study jewellery making and he began an apprenticeship in 1950. He continued to work as a broadcaster, eventually with CBC Radio, and set himself up in 1951 as a jeweller in Vancouver working in the contemporary international style. It was not until 1954, at Charles Gladstone’s funeral in Skidegate, for which Reid wrote and broadcast a eulogy on the CBC, that a Haida component of Reid’s personality emerged. On that trip he was introduced to the work of Haida master carver Charles Edenshaw (Daxhiigang), who lived between 1839 and 1920 and who is considered the greatest Haida artist in memory, the man who brought the millennia-old classical northern West Coast visual art and carving tradition to its fullest bloom while weathering the collision of Haida and European civilizations. Reid completed a Haida silver bracelet that Charles Gladstone had begun, and produced, with this act, his first piece of Haida art.

Later that year, Reid returned to Haida Gwaii to help salvage standing totem poles from the late 19th-century classical age for museum storage and exhibition. Reid walked through the moss and salal, between the grand, grey-weathered markers of a great carving culture and saw poles and remains of longhouses his grandparents had known in the abandoned village of Tanu. The salvaging team made a second trip in 1957, this time to Anthony Island (SGang Gwaay) and the abandoned town of Ninstints, which contained (and still contain today) the largest remaining group of standing poles from the 1800s. In the National Film Board documentary made about these trips, whose text Reid wrote and narrated (and is reprinted in Solitary Raven), Reid discloses—still in the voice of a CBC middle-class Canadian—his beginning entanglement with the ghosts and spirits of the places and objects he saw and touched on these trips.

In 1956, Reid wrote and recorded for CBC Radio a monologue celebrating Arts of the Raven, the first major Canadian exhibition of Northwest Coast art at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The text became the voice track for a CBC documentary film about the exhibition (called People of the Potlatch, the text is reprinted in Solitary Raven as well) and established Reid’s voice as an informed speaker and writer on Northwest Coast artistic matters. Reid worked briefly with Kwakiutl carver Mungo Martin on the totem pole that stands before the provincial museum in Victoria, and in 1958 he received a commission to create a replica Haida village, complete with longhouses, totem poles, house poles and memorial poles, for the University of British Columbia campus. It stands today on the ocean-facing cliff side of the UBC Museum of Anthropology, and the commission, his first major one, allowed Reid to retire from the CBC and become a full-time artist.

Reid worked for four years with Kwakiutl artist Douglas Cranmer on the Haida village. In 1964 he completed his “final exam” in Haida art: a miniature silver chest based on the “Master of the Black Field” cedar box held by the American Museum of Natural History and considered by Reid to be the template for the northern art and design style. He had by this time spent much time tracking down, copying, photographing, meditating on and studying Northwest Coast art treasures, primarily Haida and Tsimshian ones, and a lot of Charles Edenshaw pieces, held by American and European collections (there are tens of thousands of them: it was a hugely prolific artistic culture) and had trained himself to see, then render, the classical compositional forms—the ovoid and the formline—that are the structural building blocks of both two-dimensional and three-dimensional expressive forms of the Northwest Coast style. “The art,” as he puts it in “Curriculum Vitae 2” in Solitary Raven, “got a hold of me and possessed me, and I’ve found it impossible to give up.”

And the rest is history—and already myth. Reid went on, in multiple works, tiny and gargantuan, funny and tragic, heroic and puzzling, paradoxical and polemical, in every conceivable medium—gold, wood, paper, ivory, argillite, wax, bronze—to explore the possible ways in which an art form drawn from times immemorial could service and express something about contemporary reality.

A brief recounting of some of the large public pieces—Reid kept up a tireless parallel production of miniatures, small jewellery, gold and silver pieces, argillite carvings, for private sale or for gifts, throughout his career—gives the story: the Skidegate Band Council house pole (a copy of one of the Tanu poles) raised in 1978, the first pole-raising ceremony in Haida Gwaii since the turn of the 20th century; the yellow cedar sculpture “Raven and the First Men,” completed for the UBC Museum of Anthropology in 1980; the bronze “Chief of the Undersea World,” at the entrance of the Vancouver Aquarium, 1983–84; the “Loo Taas,” the first sea-going red cedar canoe (it is 15.25 metres long) carved on the coast since the early 1900s; his final major bronze sculpture, “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii,” completed in 1991, which comes to us in two castings, “The Black Canoe,” in the courtyard of the Canadian embassy in Washington DC, and “The Jade Canoe,” which stands in Vancouver International Airport. (The Spirit of Haida Gwaii greets us daily, of course, also, when we take out our wallets and look on the back of our $20 bills.)

Reid was at pains throughout his career, in his visual work as well as his writing—Solitary Raven can be read as an ongoing exhibition catalogue entry-cum-commentary on his visual works—to make six key points about the Northwest Coast art and the idioms bequeathed to him and others (Reid became model and mentor to a generation of younger carvers) who work with these idioms today.

Point one is that the old Haida art is dead, that what we see today when we look at the old masterpieces is their “afterlife.” We know but little about the purposes this art served or how it was perceived and experienced by its original users and creators.

Point two is that the classical art of the Northwest Coast is a great world art, on par with the masterpieces of Greece and Egypt, and of the Italian Renaissance where, as in Haida Gwaii, professional artists worked on commissions given to them by powerful aristocrats whose commissioning goal was the display of political or religious power. The art of the Northwest Coast has the long history required to perfect a nuanced, complex form and has the technical components of a classical visual language. And, like its European counterpart, it has, despite—or perhaps because of—its geographical location, a universal component. Reid puts it this way:

These monuments were the work / of master carvers and apprentices / who brought to final perfection / an art style whose origins / lay deep in the past and partly in Asia. / It was an austere, sophisticated art. / Its prevailing mood was classical control, / yet it characterized / even the simplest objects of daily life. / These seagoing hunters / took the entire environment as artform.

Reid’s third point is that his own work, although executed in the tradition’s idioms, cannot be perceived in anything like the way the traditional works were. As universalized global contemporary art, it forfeits the local meanings provided by daily usage, by the communal utility of the objects, by the location in which they are used. Nor does his familiarity with their art forms authorize him to speak other than subjectively about the original artists, the people who used the art, and the aesthetic culture artist and community shared:

To consider the art of the Northwest Coast in anything but a most subjective way would be for me an almost impossible exercise. For two decades now, I have lived intimately with the strange and beautiful beasts and heroes of Haida mythology and learned to know them as part of myself—and through their powerful realizations in the high art of the Indian past, perhaps to know something of the people who at one time shared this intimacy.

Reid’s humility and caution here lead to his fourth point, which is that the “artistic renaissance” experienced by Northwest Coast art in the 1980s and ’90s, a renaissance whose progenitor Reid is repeatedly cited as being, must be understood critically and approached with a degree of skepticism. It is, he says, a hothouse art, produced to an extent by the conjoined interests of an “academic tribe” of anthropologists and those carvers who imagine their talent to be an inbred and natural part of being Native. Northwest Coast art, Reid points out, was, since the early days of European contact, tied in with the curio trade in which carvers traded and at times sold their work to Europeans, entering thereby a cash economy, not the gift economy practised by potlatching cultures. The resulting contextual trivialization danger here is great and one should not lightly mix up commerce with kinship.

Reid’s fifth point, which is more of a statement than an argument, is that the artistic renaissance in no way addressed or addresses the depressed and repressed state in which most aboriginal people on the Northwest Coast live. Unemployment, alcoholism, drugs and resulting violence are rampant, suicides flourish, poverty and illness eats away at people. The lack of an imaginable future, of an actual time and space in which First Nations people and their culture might properly exist, erodes morale and continues to be, Reid reminds us, a political and economic disaster from which no amount of art production can, other than in isolated instances, deliver us.

Reid’s final point in this book, a point of wonder which I share, addresses the profound “mystery” of how

little men, painfully pecking away day after day, sometimes week after week, at pieces of stone, could hold such wonderful visions that their final realizations transcend them and their time, become independent of their creators, come to possess existences separate from those who made them, and separate from us who come after.

Reid wrote this in his introduction to Images Stone B.C., his friend and collaborator Wilson Duff’s groundbreaking and controversial meditation on the ancient Salish (one presumes) stone art of the Lower Fraser Valley and the Lower Mainland coast. Duff believed that the early Northwest Coast artists were philosophers in the Greek mode and made their sculptures in order to solve philosophical riddles. He believed that the Northwest Coast cultures were at a similar historical moment as the eighth century BCE Greeks, i.e., about to create or discover both writing and abstract thought.

Reid was skeptical on this point, but his respect for Duff’s work was great. He expressed his own wonder and admiration by saying that the First Nations of the Northwest Coast were

A unique group in the diverse cultures of the world: the only people who depended entirely upon hunting, fishing and gathering for their sustenance—the most primitive form of economy—who nonetheless produced one of the world’s great artistic cultures … comparable with that produced anywhere in the world.

Solitary Raven is a full compendium of Bill Reid’s writing, the expressive endeavour his editor Robert Bringhurst claims eloquently parallels and supplements Reid’s visual work. The essays, transcribed lectures and radio talks, exhibition catalogue contributions, book forewords and newspaper and magazine pieces, along with some previously unpublished manuscripts and occasional pieces, take us from a letter to the Vancouver Sun editor, published in 1954, to a meditation on Reid’s late masterpiece, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, which Reid dictated to his wife, Martine Reid, in 1991. Sometimes he is very funny: in his essay “The Myth of the Land Bridge,” which addresses the conflicting aboriginal and European North American origin theories and storytelling methodologies, he takes delightful mickey out of the latter. Reid’s writing is fluid, colloquial, marked with oral, not literary cadences—Reid began in radio, a speaker’s art, and lived with part of his being in a culture that favours unscripted speech, delivered from the heart. Robert Bringhurst gives us a sage introductory overview of Reid’s written oeuvre and provides a nicely calibrated scholarly apparatus to accompany the texts.