Bill Reid is one of the most significant Northwest Coast artists of the 20th. century.
A Haida – his output prolific and varied – he produced more than 1,000 works, paintings, sculpture, jewellery, and prints, during a 50-year career.
Reid was born in Victoria, British Columbia. His mother, Haida, his father, American.
He only started exploring his Haida roots at age 23 but it was a lifelong journey – shaping his career as a seminal Haida artist, often credited as singularly reviving Haida art as its own art form, taking it out of the realm of so-called ”primitive” art, a designation ascribed to First Nations art by white people.
Reid is credited with building bridges between Indigenous people and white people through his art.
The Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver the only public gallery in Canada totally focussed on Northwest Coast art describes his contributions:
“Reid became a pivotal force in building bridges between Indigenous people and other peoples. Through his mother, he was a member of the Raven clan from T’aanuu with the wolf as one of his family crests. Raven is known as a mischievous trickster, who also plays an important part in transforming the world. Many of these traits matched Bill Reid’s personality. In 1986, Reid was presented with the Haida name Yaahl Sgwansung, meaning The Only Raven.”
He started as a radio announcer – working in different parts of Canada – eventually ending up with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto.
It was in Toronto where he studied jewellery making.
Eventually he moved back to Vancouver, establishing himself as a traditional jeweller.
But in 1954 that changed based on a trip to Haida Gwaii, traditional home of the Haida nation and its people.
It was a pair of deeply carved bracelets by a “great-great” uncle, Charles Edenshaw, that inspired him, creating jewellery based on Haida culture and history.
From then his art evolved into other endeavours – carving, sculpting, painting, print making.
A master goldsmith, Reid’s gold creations are sublime.
Likewise his major public sculptures are stunning.
He also produced smaller sculptures, prints and paintings.
“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 truly a Northwest Coast master artist.
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