British Columbia

Legacy of late Haida artist Bill Reid remembered in exhibition to mark 100th birthday

The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in Vancouver is celebrating the milestone centennial birthday of the late artist with a show curated by the last apprentice Reid mentored.

The Vancouver show is co-curated by the last apprentice the artist mentored

A black and white photo of a man with grey hair carrying a hammer as he carves a sculpture.
Haida artist Bill Reid, shown carving a sculpture, earned widespread recognition and a prominent position in the renaissance of Northwest native art. (Chuck Stoody/The Canadian Press)

Bill Reid's name is synonymous with West Coast Indigenous art — Haida art in particular — and a new gallery exhibition is paying homage to the influence of the esteemed sculptor and goldsmith who would have turned 100 this year.

The exhibit,To Speak With a Golden Voice, is being shown from mid-July until April 2021 at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in downtown Vancouver. 

Guest curated by Haida filmmaker and artist Gwaai Edenshaw — who is considered to be Reid's last apprentice — the exhibition includes rarely seen works by Reid and explores the complexities of his legacy as an artist and his identity as a Haida man.

"One of the things that we're trying to talk about is not just his wonderful pieces that he's made over his lifetime but actually his humanity," Edenshaw said this week on The Early Edition.

A wooden sculpture of a raven on top of three men.
Raven and the First Men is one of Bill Reid's most recognized works. It's on display at the Museum of Anthropology. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Edenshaw said the exhibit will use works left in progress, tools and other personal items to show some of Reid's personal struggles.

One thing about Reid that Edenshaw said stood out for him while preparing the show, was that he realized Reid always spoke about being Haida in the third person.

"I think he always felt somewhat of an outsider within his own people," said Edenshaw, adding the Haida people always claimed Reid as one of their own.

This lighter is one of only a handful that Haida artist Bill Reid ever carved. It was recently donated to the UBC Museum of Anthropology. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Reid was born in Victoria, B.C., in 1920 to a Haida mother and American father with Scottish-German roots and began exploring his Haida heritage in his early 20s.

He studied jewlery making while working at CBC in Toronto, but it wasn't until a trip to Haida Gwaii in the 1950s that his "creative trajectory shifted irreversibly," according to the gallery website.

"When he worked for the CBC people would always say, 'You know that's Sophie's son?' when they heard it on the radio, but you know he couldn't help but feel an outsider," said Edenshaw.

Watch Bill Reid, who worked for CBC in the 1950s, exploring Haida culture on the job:

Bill Reid archive on early Haida Gwaii

5 years ago
Duration 1:28
Bill Reid turns back the clock to visit an imaginary Haida village from the past.

But during the artist's lifetime, Edenshaw said Reid not only helped to elevate Haida art, but also trained and mentored many other young artists.

"[He] allowed so many people to pass through his studio that all across the northwest coast people can draw a line back to Bill in their tutelage," said Edenshaw.

Reid was renowned for making exquisitely detailed pieces and monumental carvings.

Some of his well-known works include Chief of the Undersea World — a bronze orca statue gifted to the Vancouver Aquarium; The Spirit of Haida Gwaii — a large jade-coloured canoe filled with people and animals at Vancouver International Airport; and Raven and the First Men — a cedar sculpture at the UBC Museum of Anthropology that depicts the Haida myth of the raven discovering mankind in a giant clamshell.

Watch the installation of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii at Vancouver International Airport in 1996:

Bill Reid's Jade Canoe

26 years ago
Duration 7:39
The raven, the bear, the frog and the dogfish woman coexist uncomfortably in this Reid legend. Aired on Oct. 25, 1997 on a CBC-TV special.

The new exhibition will include archival recordings, rarely seen sketchbooks and works in progress, as well as short films of people who personally knew the artist.

Works by Reid's contemporaries and the successors who considered him an influence will also be on display.

The gallery is located at 639 Hornby Street. Admission is free from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the first Friday of every month.

Thursday mornings, from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., are reserved for visits from seniors, vulnerable people and first responders.

To hear Gwaai Edenshaw, the co-curator of the exhibition, speak about Bill Reid's legacy on The Early Edition, tap the link in the tweet above his image:

With files from The Early Edition