IN MEMORIAM: Bill Reid (1920-1998)

"Remembering Bill Reid"

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 golden microcosm.

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 Levi-Strauss.

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.