IN MEMORIAM: Bill Reid (1920-1998)

Quotations: by and about Bill Reid

"Of all the arts of which traces remain that of the Indians of the Northwest coast is certainly one of the greatest. But at a time when the statuary of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece, those of Soong China and of the European middle ages have irretrievably disappeared along with the men whose dreams they fed, our debt to Bill Reid, an incomparable artist, is that he has tended and revived a flame that was so close to dying. That is not all; for Bill Reid by his example and by his teachings has given rise to a prodigious artistic flowering, the results of which the Indian designers, sculptors and goldsmiths of British Columbia offer today to our wondering eyes."
Claude Lévi-Strauss, from the catalogue for "Bill Reid: A Retrospective Exhibition", Vancouver Art Gallery, 1974

"Bill found the dry bones of a great art and -- shamanlike -- shook off the layers of museum dust and brought it back to life."
Bill Holm from the catalogue for "Bill Reid: A Retrospective Exhibition", Vancouver Art Gallery, 1974

"His work challenges the popular notion that the essence of art lies in its quest for the new, the innovative, the avant-garde."
Michael Ames, in the foreword to Karen Duffek, Bill Reid: Beyond the Essential Form, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986

"I consider myself one of the most fortunate of men, to have lived at a time when some of the old Haidas and their peers among the Northwest Coast peoples were still alive, and to have had the privilege of knowing them."
Bill Reid, in the introduction to The Raven Steals the Light, Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1984

"Bill Reid's role in the restoration of West Coast art may be described as a process of self-discovery, of finding his own creative center in the roots of tradition, and of growing and developing outward from that cultural core."
Joan Vastokas, "Bill Reid and the native renaissance," Artscanada, nos.198/199 (June 1975), p.18

"He worked in two quite different cultural traditions and danced back and forth across those boundaries with a skill that was quite astonishing."
Robert Bringhurst, interviewed on CBC Stereo Ottawa, 16 March 1998

"His jewellery pieces are miniature works of rich heraldic and often expressive sculpture, transcending the common perception of jewellery in our time as simply a matter of expensive items for casual human adornment."
Doris Shadbolt, "The Well-Made Object," Canadian Collector, January/February 1987, p.19

"The goldsmithing techniques he commands have enabled him to push beyond the possibilities known to past masters. Through repoussé, casting, soldering, and silver overlay, Reid has extended Northwest Coast jewellery into three dimensions. Past technology only allowed shallow engraving of designs on to the metal's surface."
Karen Duffek, Bill Reid: Beyond the Essential Form, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986, p.13

"[The Bear Mother dish is] pure Haida in design -- a richly decorated extrapolation of Indian bear motifs from painting and totem poles into rich, humorous three dimensionality. Despite the radically different 'styles' of lid and box, human mother and proud bear father, the two parts of Reid's daring design go together without the slightest clash."
Roger Downey, "Apprentice to a Lost Art," Pacific Northwest, vol.17, no.8 (October 1983), p.39

[about "The Raven and the First Men"]
"Reid is considered to have carried Haida design an important step further by carving entirely free sculptures that retain the conventional Haida forms. In freeing his bird from the vertical totem, Reid himself appears to have shaken off some of the constraints that bound him to the past."
Edith Iglauer, "The Myth Maker," Saturday Night, vol.27, no.2 (February 1982), p.22

"[His silkscreen prints] are not derived from other works but are clearly influenced by his brooches. This is evident in the placement of a sharply outlined central motif upon a clear background. Within that motif, as befits a graphic work, is lodged a host of fanciful details.... From this point of view his most magisterial print to date is the Children of the Raven, first commissioned as a graphic for the West Coast hall of the National Museum of Man, Ottawa. It deals with the discovery of mankind in the clam shell by the Raven."
Joan Lowndes, "Child of the Raven," Vanguard, vol.11, no.1 (February 1982), 23-24

"above all what makes his name synonymous with the resurgence of Northwest Coast Indian art is the sober magnificence and lyric flow of his work. He is the complete master, working in gold, silver, platinum, wood, argillite, ivory, copper as well as media unknown to his Haida ancestors such as serigraphy and ... the written word. His range is from a totem to a brooch."
Joan Lowndes, "Child of the Raven," Vanguard, vol.11, no.1 (February 1982), p.21

"The pièce de résistance of Bill Reid's work is surely The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, commissioned by the firm of R. J. Reynolds for the new Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. This massive sculpture, which took more than three years to execute and resulted in a price tag of $1.8 million, was unveiled in 1992. The plaster pattern for the bronze cast was a perfect complement to the baroque plaster interiors that architect Douglas Cardinal had created for the new Canadian Museum of Civilization. Long before the completion and opening of the museum in 1989, I had suggested to Maury and Mary Young of Vancouver, the eventual donors, that The Spirit of Haida Gwaii would be the crowning piece in the Grand Hall, signalling that Northwest Coast native culture was not extinct but was, shamanlike, rising from the ashes."
George F. MacDonald, Haida Art, Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, p.228

"As an image of latter-day Haida culture -- figures from a fallen totem pole and characters from the stories of a strangled language gathered like mythological Boat People into that mother of forms, the canoe -- The Spirit of Haida Gwaii is remarkably self-contained. But the sea in which it travels is full of other echoes tying the work to the larger world. Reid himself delights in making some of these connections -- pointing out after-the-fact allusions to A.A. Milne and Carl Sandburg, for example, or a tongue-in-cheek resemblance to Emanuel Leutze's portrait of Washington Crossing the Delaware....

"The black canoe is Noah's Ark and Cook's Endeavour, the flagship of a culture, and Huck and Jim's disintegrating raft. A cargo ship and lifeboat, bearing the treasures of prehistory; a shaman and his familiars on their voyage under the sky's rim; a diplomatic mission from an almost vanished nation to the reigning power of the hemisphere; and an exploratory vessel, sailing an unknown course through unknown seas. Beings looking for other beings to speak to, feast with, trade with, perhaps to intermarry with, not for a place to plant a flag."
Robert Bringhurst, The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1991, p.76

"The Spirit Canoe was not designed to have any overall meaning in a literal sense. I thought it was a good opportunity to repay all the funny little characters who have been posing for me by taking them for a ride in the family canoe."
Bill Reid, quoted in Tim Isaac, "Reid collaborates with Erickson on embassy," Kahtou, 28 March 1988, p.6

"The fact of identifying the clan to which his grandmother belonged, and being the 'hero' of Edenshaw celebrated in so many of his carvings, gave the Raven a privileged place in Reid's bestiary from the beginning. For Reid that place became consolidated with the Raven's emerging character as the original wunderkind whose world-shaping, wonder-making transformations had nothing to do with pious good intentions but emerged from an improbable but fortuitous creative intuition coupled with a detached and open self-interest. A toughened survivor without illusions, able to cope with all the unpredictables life hurled at him, the Raven -- perhaps the first existentialist -- presents a world that cannot be reduced to a neat system since it is by nature illogical and unintelligible. Reid, in full ironic and delighted awareness, finds this trickster a creature capable of being his hero."
Doris Shadbolt, Bill Reid, Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1986, pp.144-145

"The art of Bill Reid is the art of the Northwest Coast with something extra -- a new element! While remaining completely faithful to its roots, Reid's art is deeply infused with the personality of its creator. This is what makes his sculptures so easily recognisable and, above all, worthy of a place on the world stage."
Claude Lévi-Strauss, quoted in "Bill Reid ou la renaissance de l'art Haïda," by Martine Reid and Muriel Tohmé, Geo, no. 229 (March 1998), p.49

"If the Raven created the Haida nation in the beginning, it is said, Reid has recreated it in the 20th century. Reid's revival of traditional Haida art, an accomplishment remarkable enough in itself, was a pebble in the pool, engendering widening circles of consequence. The renaissance in their art fostered a revitalization of their culture in general and contributed to the discovery of a new political will among the Haida of the Queen Charlottes."
Richard Wright, "The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: La renaissance de l'art haïda," Enroute, March 1991, p.88

"His vision has young people taking pride in the true accomplishments of their forbears and emulating them in new ways, so that native people can claim their place in the wider world while remaining distinctively Haida."
Karen Duffek, Bill Reid: Beyond the Essential Form, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986, p.26

"By helping the near extinct art of his Haida ancestors to be reborn in all its three-dimensional and graphic forms, he has given the example, which through world-wide exposure has helped the people of the Northwest Coast to become fully aware that through their spirit and art they constituted a true civilization. Thanks to Bill Reid, a prodigious renewal took place. We are forever indebted to him for having revived and perpetuated in his oeuvre, and in those of all who have followed his path, an art form, now recognized as equal to the greatest. He has saved from an unrepairable loss the cultural legacy of mankind."
Claude Lévi-Strauss, from a letter (23 March 1998) in English to Martine Reid upon the death of her husband

"I've never felt that I was doing something for my people, except what I could to bring the accomplishments of the old ones to the attention of the world. I think the Northwest Coast style of art is an absolutely unique product, one of the crowning achievements of the whole human experience. I just don't want the whole thing swept under the carpet without someone paying attention to it."
Bill Reid, quoted in Edith Iglauer, "The Myth Maker," Saturday Night, February 1982, p.24

Extracts from "The Road I Followed"
by Bill Reid

My close connection with Haida art led inevitably to a concern for Haida people and their problems. I have become involved in a number of environmental and social issues and have made such symbolic statements as the 18 metre heraldic column for the Band Council at Skidegate and more recently, the 16 metre seagoing canoe carved out of a single log. I also actively participated in some campaigns for the preservation of the natural beauty and resources of Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlottes).

I have not ceased to take the cause and encourage the renewal of the traditional arts of the Haida, because I wanted the world to become aware of the extraordinary achievements of this little group of people who seemed to have been animated during their life time by the obsessional need to create unique objects which were both perfect in design and of great intensity, and followed a certain esthetic sense as remote as any of the world's great art forms, and as austere as those far away Islands where they originated.

Inasmuch as the work of Charles Edenshaw has helped people of my generation to understand the essence of his ancestor's creativity, I wish that the objects which come from my hands play the role of "revelators" of ancient representations. It is my hope that the people of today and of tomorrow become aware of the existence of the Northwest Coast and feel enriched by the knowledge they will acquire from this extraordinary testimony of what man can do.