First Nation Artists – Bill Reid

Bill Reid (1920 – 1998)

One of Canada’s most important and globally-recognized artists, Bill Reid was a “bridge” between Haida First Nation culture and Anglo culture. His father was Scots; his mother was Haida. Until his early teens, Bill was not informed of his Haida heritage, and yet he had the instinctive love and talent of his truly famous Haida artistic heritage.

His great grandfather, Albert Edward Edenshaw (1812-1894) and his grandfather Charlie Edenshaw (ca. 1838-1924) provided a trail for him to unravel in their legendary works. By the time Bill realized his inheritance, Haida arts and culture had almost been extinguished by the ever-present onslaught of government assault and public discrimination.

Bill, steadfastly studied the great Haida artists, starting with his family, and trekked to museums around the globe to re-discover the secret artistic language of Haida Art. His purpose was to return it to his people, to encourage them to value it and make Haida Art live again.

His grandmother had been born into the Raven moiety, so ravens feature prominently in his art.

From the heart-rending effect of all the totem poles which Christian Missionaries had demanded be removed and the villages he saw without-their-heart which were left abandoned (as the Haida scrambled to survive on what they were “allowed” to keep), a deep sense of Justice for his People, awakened in Bill.

He had been brought up in an educated Anglo experience, but he was determined to change the status quo for his People. Bill said, “Haida culture has been wrecked. Their language is gone. Their mythology is gone. The genealogies of the big families are lost. If they’re going to find their way back to the world of cultured men, then they have to begin at the beginning.”

The knowledge of the cultural and artistic conventions underlying Haida art had been lost; all that remained for Bill to study were the material examples. He set himself to learning their visual language.

Then, Bill also became a staunch and potent advocate for his Haida (and other First Nations’) rights, as well as becoming their most renowned, living artist.

Bill succeeded in cracking the secret code of Haida Art. Through Bill’s scholarship and then active artistic expression, he returned Haida Art to its deserved shared-pinnacle position in world culture.

And, he reconstituted the Trail for all future Haida artists to follow so to make Art part of the Life of his People, forever more.

As he said ” Art can never be understood, but can only be seen as a kind of magic, the most profound and mysterious of all human activities. Within that magic, one of the deepest mysteries is the art of the Northwest Coast — a unique expression of an illiterate people, resembling no other art form except perhaps the most sophisticated calligraphy.”

In the galleries around Vancouver, you will see Bill’s legacy, as the young First Nation’s artists he taught continue their careers, long after their master has completed his life Journey.

You will be able to see originals of Bill Reid’s work at the University of British Columbia’s Anthropology Museum. We are lucky, indeed, that so much of Bill’s work is in public hands because he won commissions. His legacy is an inspiration to all of us — whether it be the exquisite gold pieces he made or whether it be a traditional Haida canoe or totem pole or individual carvings or the more collectible serigraph print.

Make seeing Bill Reid’s work and learning more about him an integral part of your visit to Vancouver!

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