A good read on Bill Reid - Macleans.ca

A good read on Bill Reid


I find it hard to reveal my interest in First Nations art without feeling a defensive urge to prevaricate. A person of my taste and sophistication, I want to say, certainly doesn’t mean Eskimo-kitsch carvings, knock-off Morrisseau greeting cards, and Haida-print bookmarks.

Except that, in a way, I mean exactly those things. The fascination of these traditions lies largely in how they’ve worked their way into every corner of our field of view. Unlike any other art made in Canada, besides Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven, these are the graphic styles Canadians actually choose to live with, which has to count for something.

So anything that helps us understand what we’re looking at when First Nations art and design are in front of us, as they so often are, deserves notice. To that end, I commend to you a lively, insightful essay by Norbert Ruebsaat, in the current issue of the Literary Review of Canada, on a new collection of writings by Bill Reid, the late sculptor who led the renaissance in Northwest Coast art.

Ruebsaat leads us on an illuminating tour of Reid’s life story, noting especially the fact that the artist grew up in a white middle-class milieu, and didn’t begin exploring the artistic heritage of his Haida mother until he was in his twenties. Coming at it from the outside, Reid was conscious that the tradition he chose to immerse himself in belonged to a previous time. Ruebsaat includes this telling quotation from him:

To consider the art of the Northwest Coast in anything but a most subjective way would be for me an almost impossible exercise. For two decades now, I have lived intimately with the strange and beautiful beasts and heroes of Haida mythology and learned to know them as part of myself—and through their powerful realizations in the high art of the Indian past, perhaps to know something of the people who at one time shared this intimacy.

There’s something in this that grants us all permission to try to get inside what can still seem, for all its familiarity, like rather exotic art. Of course we’re not going to go anywhere near as deep as Reid did. But apart from being an extraordinarily gifted and disciplined artist, it’s worth remembering that he wasn’t so different from us—he was a twentieth-century man. Our finding his vision accessible isn’t all that strange. There’s nothing to stop us from hoping to feel a bit of what he felt.

The book, by the way, is called Solitary Raven: The Essential Writings of Bill Reid. It’s edited by Robert Bringhurst, the British Columbia poet whose translations of Haida myths are a treasure.


A good read on Bill Reid

  1. Thanks JG. I urge anyone who isn't familiar with Bill Reid's work to visit the Royal Anthropological museum in Vancouver, it's quite stunning.

    • OOps, don't know where the Royal came from. Jody has it right.

  2. both of the sites noted by kcm and Jody are well worth anyone's time who has the inclination. I had the very fortunate experience of traveling to Haidi Gwaii nearly two years ago now (how time flies!) and would recommend it to anyone who has the chance to go. While there are lots of chance to see Reid's work, his influence on a next generation of carvers, sculptors and painters (among others) is omnipresent. One of the places this is most obvious is in the new Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay Llnagaay which is an impressive place http://www.haidaheritagecentre.com/

    But even better, because the place is relatively untraveled and because the people you meet tend to be so open and friendly there are remarkable opportunities to visit with people in their workshops and galleries, which is fantastic. To see all of this in the context of the natural historical environment from which these artistic traditions emerged is truly amazing. I value my travel to Haida Gwaii as much as any I will ever do I suspect (that i got to take my mom for her 60th bday made the whole experience even more incredible!).

    • The Charlottes are a unique and astonishing place. Did you have a chance to go south into the park? I took a two weeek kayaking trip there with my wife in 95. One of the truly great experiences of my life.

      • we did KCM, we made it down to skedans and to SGang Gwaay Llnagaay way down south. yeah it was truly great. i really hope i get a chance to go back. your trip sounds amazing.

        • If you go back, don't miss hot springs island. If there's a better setting for a soak i haven't found it yet.

  3. Bringhurst is a treasure. In addition to his talents as a poet and translator, he's an absolute expert in typography. His Elements of Typographic Style is unbelievable.

  4. Oh, and Windy bay…incredible!

    • I def intend to get back and will make a point to visit both when it happens KCM, thanks!

  5. Bill Reid I want to be just loike you!
    Love with all my heart Stacy Broon
    My street is Surrey B.C 8659 162nd 1A9 V4N