By Cheryl Petten
Bill Reid brought about a change in the way the work of Native artists was viewed by the Western world through his ceaseless work to have Native jewelry and carvings accepted as fine art rather than viewed as handicraft.
Bill Reid: Caught between two worlds
By Cheryl Petten
Artist Bill Reid began his life in Victoria on Jan. 12, 1920. William Ronald Reid was the first of three children born to Sophie and Billy Reid. His mother was Haida from Skidegate, his father, an American whose mother was German and father Scottish.
After her marriage to Billy Reid in 1919, Sophie Reid had distanced herself from her Haida heritage. She knew that her children's mixed blood made them less acceptable to white society than they would have been if they'd been full-blooded Indians.
But although she adopted a white way of life, she still kept in close contact with her family back in Skidegate, and continued to wear silver bracelets adorned with traditional Haida designs, some of which were created for her by her father, Charlie Gladstone.
The relationship between Sophie and Billy Reid was tumultuous, with Sophie and the children dividing their time between Victoria and Hyder, a community on the border between B.C. and Alaska where Billy Reid owned and operated hotels. When the young Bill was 13, he made the move from Hyder to Victoria for the last time, leaving behind a father he would never see again.
Growing up in Victoria, Reid never acknowledged his Native roots, nor did he acknowledge them during the year he spent at Victoria College, or the next year when, at the age of 18, he began his career in radio.
He worked as a radio announcer in B.C., Quebec and Ontario for a decade before joining the CBC in Toronto in 1948. That same year, he began studying jewelry making at Ryerson Institute of Technology. It was during his time at Ryerson that Reid first told his acquaintances of his Haida lineage, when his studies rekindled his interest in creating jewelry that incorporated Native designs.
Reid's interest in Native art and design dated back to his childhood when his mother would take her children home to Skidegate for visits. Reid admired the jewelry and carvings created by his grandfather, as well as those created by others in the community, including those made by his grandfather's uncle, Charles Edenshaw, whose work now stands alongside Reid's as the epitome of West Coast art.
During these visits, Reid would spend much time with his grandfather, watching him create silver bracelets or argillite carvings, in much the same way as his grandfather had learned his craft by watching Edenshaw.
At Ryerson he began to incorporate West Coast themes into his work. At first, he was simply replicating the work created by his predecessors, but later began to adapt the traditional designs, creating work that merged Native and Western art into one.
This renewed interest in his Native heritage also spilled over into his broadcasting career, where he documented attempts to salvage totem poles that were succumbing to the elements in now deserted Native communities.
Reid has been described as a bridge between the Native and non-Native worlds. But he has also been portrayed as someone who lived between those worlds, never truly accepted in either. He took his inspiration for his art from the creations of the great Haida carvers who had come before him. But inspiration also came from books on Native art created by non-Native ethnographers, and from studying the works of non-Native artists.
His technical knowledge had the same fractured origins. He learned carving at the side of Native artists such as his grandfather and Kwakwaka'wakw artist Mungo Martin, but learned jewelry making from non-Native instructors and artisans.
As his skills as a jeweler improved, and his interest in Haida design increased, Reid transformed from a radio personality who made jewelry on the side into a world-renowned Haida artist.
While much of his success lay in his talent for translating Haida imagery into something visually beautiful, his career was buoyed by his willingness to get to know the right people and cultivate the right connections, something other Native artists of the time either couldn't or wouldn't do.
Reid brought about a change in the way the work of Native artists was viewed by the Western world through his ceaseless work to have Native jewelry and carvings accepted as fine art rather than viewed as handicraft.
While his most famous works are his large scale carvings—The Spirit of Haida Gwaii and the Raven and the First Men—Reid saw himself primarily as a maker of jewelry.
His goal from the outset was to create beautiful, modern jewelry, and many times he swore to abandon Native art all together so he could pursue that goal. But each time, the path he traveled returned him to the art form with which he is most closely associated.
At the height of his career, Reid was earning more than any other Native artist. In the early 1990s, gold replicas of the Raven and the First Men were fetching $125,000 each. And in 1995, he earned the largest commission in the history of Canadian art when the Vancouver International Airport paid him $3 million for another version of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, this time created with a green patina and named The Jade Canoe.
One of the ironies of Reid's life was that, as he became more successful in his artistic career, he also became less physically able to continue his work. In the early 1970s, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a chronic and progressive neurologic disorder that can cause hand tremors and stiffness of the limbs.
As the disease progressed, he grew less and less able to create with his own hands, and grew more and more reliant on his assistants to transform his visions into solid form.
In the end, the disease made it difficult for him to speak, and to think clearly. Then, on March 13, 1998, at the age of 78, Bill Reid passed away.
Two separate memorial services were held to honor Reid after his death, the first in the Great Hall of UBC's Museum of Anthropology, just a stone's throw away from the Haida village Reid had helped recreate on the campus in 1959.
More than 1,000 people came to pay their respects to Reid—mainstream politicians, First Nations leaders, Elders, fellow carvers, family and friends among them—during a service that lasted more than six hours.
The second ceremony took place at Skidegate, the birthplace of his mother on T’anuu Island, carried to the place on a canoe he had carved for the 1986 Expo called Lootas.
After a three-day journey, the Lootas arrived at its final destination where some of Reid's ashes were scattered. The rest are buried.