William Ronald Reid

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William Ronald Reid

William Ronald (Bill) Reid (born 1920) was a Canadian artist who played a pivotal role in the resurgence of Northwest Coast Indian art, particularly that of the Haida.

Bill Reid was born January 12, 1920, in Victoria, British Columbia. He was the son of a Haida mother, Sophie Gladstone, from Skidegate Mission, Queen Charlotte Islands, and a Scottish-German American father, William Ronald Reid (Senior). During his childhood his family made several moves between Victoria and Hyder, Alaska; he later lived and worked in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Reid was the first artist born in this century to master the complex principles of northern Northwest Coast art—the art of the coastal Indian tribes of northern British Columbia. He began his task in the early 1950s, in a period when knowledge of the highly conventionalized formal structure that characterizes this art had largely been lost. The cumulative impact of colonization on the Haida, Northern Kwagulth, Tsimshian, and Tlingit peoples had meant the breakdown of these flourishing cultures by the late 1800s, destroying as well the traditional impetus for artistic expression.

With no knowledgeable practicing Haida artists to guide him, Reid had to search out the art far from his mother's and grandfather's native villages, in the museums that now house the finest works, and in the ethnographies written by anthropologists. By studying and sometimes copying these objects and images, he began to uncover the traditional design principles and understand the artistic process behind them. He was thus gradually able to create original images within Haida tradition, and later to extend the boundaries of that tradition by blending Northwest Coast iconography and Western naturalism.

Reid was raised entirely in the European/North American society of his father; as a teenager he first became aware of his Haida heritage. In 1943, when Reid was in his early twenties, he got to know his maternal grandfather, Charles Gladstone (1877-1954), the last in a direct line of Haida silversmiths who had learned their craft from their elders. Gladstone had lived and studied in his youth with his uncle, the renowned Haida artist Charles Edenshaw (c. 1839-1920). The work of Edenshaw, in turn, became Reid's initial artistic inspiration.

Reid's artistic career was preceded by a career in public broadcasting, first in commercial radio and from 1948 until 1958 with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). While working for the CBC in Toronto, Reid enrolled in a jewelry-making course offered by the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. There, he spent two years studying conventional European jewelry techniques, followed by a partial apprenticeship at the Platinum Art Company.

Before leaving CBC, he wrote and narrated a television documentary that explored Totem Poles of the Queen Charlotte Islands and narrated a film documenting the "People of Potlach" Exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. He returned to the Canadian west coast in 1951 to establish himself as a designer of contemporary jewelry. On a subsequent trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands, however, he saw a pair of bracelets engraved by Charles Edenshaw and decided to devote his creative energies to Haida jewelry, applying the European techniques he had learned.

In 1968 Reid spent a year at the Central School of Design in London, England, on a Canada Council senior fellowship to improve his goldsmithing techniques. Upon his return to Canada, he set up a workshop in Montreal and remained in that city for three years. His London experience strongly influenced all his subsequent production, which included pieces of both Haida and contemporary international design. Highly acclaimed works created during this period included his gold and diamond necklace (1969), the gold Beaver, Human, and Killerwhale Box (1971), the gold Bear Mother Dish (1972), and the intricate boxwood carving, The Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clamshell (1970). The 4.5-ton cedar version of the latter carving was completed ten years later for the University of British Columbia (UBC) Museum of Anthropology (The Raven and the First Men, 1980).

Reid considered himself primarily a goldsmith, but in addition to his jewelry he created massive and miniature works in wood, ivory, argillite, and bronze, as well as drawings, lithographs, and silkscreen prints. In 1958 Reid was commissioned by UBC to recreate a section of a Haida village, including two houses and seven poles. This allowed him to quit his broadcasting career and devote full time to his art. Haida Village was completed in 1962 with the assistance of Kwagulth carver Douglas Cranmer.

In 1978 Reid completed a 17-meter totem pole for the new Skidegate band council office, Queen Charlotte Islands. It was the first pole to be raised in his mother's village in more than a century. Reid's 15.2-meter ocean-going cedar canoe, Lootas ("Wave Eater"), was launched in 1986, and in 1989 it was paddled up the Seine River to be exhibited at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, France. Among his large bronze works is The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, also called The Black Canoe (1991), at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. In creating his large sculptures, Reid utilized the skilled assistance of other Haida and non-Haida carvers and specialists, most notably sculptor George Rammell.

Through the 1990s Reid continued to be recognized for his tireless efforts to preserve the Haida art form. In 1990 he received the $100,000 Royal Bank Award for outstanding Canadian Achievement. Reid was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award presented by the Canadian Native Arts Foundation in 1994. That same year he was inducted into the Order of British Columbia. The Canada Post Corporation issued a stamp on April 30, 1996 featuring "The Spirit of Haida Gwaii". He continued writing about Haida folklore and co-authored The Raven Steals the Light: Native American Tales (1996), with Robert Bringhurst. Reid received honorary doctoral degrees from the University of British Columbia, University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University and other schools as well.

Reid's role in recognizing and revitalizing the highest standards of traditional Haida craftsmanship was significant in helping to place Northwest Coast art on the world stage and in giving younger artists a foundation upon which to build their own understanding of Haida form. His acceptance as a 20th-century artist demonstrated the extent to which Haida iconography became for him a means of personal expression, no longer belonging only to the past. His growing concern with social and environmental issues, particularly those affecting native peoples' self-determination, also found expression in his art and in his many publications.

Further Reading

Two biographies of Reid have been published: Bill Reid by Doris Shadbolt (1986) and Bill Reid: Beyond the Essential Form by Karen Duffek (1986). Both were accurate and contained many illustrations; Shadbolt's book was a larger and more extensive study. Much has been written about Reid in exhibition catalogues and popular media. Useful among these were Bill Reid—A Retrospective Exhibition (Vancouver Art Gallery, 1974) and "The Myth Maker" by Edith Iglauer (Saturday Night, 1982).

Reid himself wrote, illustrated, and collaborated on many books and essays. Two important examples in which he discussed Northwest Coast art include "The Art—An Appreciation" in Arts of the Raven (Vancouver Art Gallery, 1967) and Indian Art of the Northwest Coast—A Dialogue on Craftsmanship and Aesthetics by Reid and Bill Holm (1975). Reid's powerful and often witty poetry and prose was exemplified in three publications: Out of the Silence by Reid and Adelaide de Menil (1971); The Haida Legend of the Raven and the First Humans (UBC Museum of Anthropology, 1980); and The Raven Steals the Light by Reid and Robert Bringhurst (1984). For a general discussion on past and present Northwest Coast Indian art, including Reid's role, see The Legacy by Peter Macnair, Alan Hoover, and Kevin Neary (1980). Terren Iiana Wein, The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii (1996) provided a penetrating look at Reid and an in-depth analysis of his Haida masterpieces. □

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William Ronald Reid