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Bill (William Ronald) Reid

 (1920 - 1998)
Bill (William Ronald) Reid was active/lived in British Columbia, Ontario / Canada.  Bill Reid is known for wood carving, sculpture, prints, graphics, jewelry making.

Bill (William Ronald) Reid

Biography from the Archives of askART

William Ronald Reid (AKA: Bill Reid) was a very important Canadian sculptor, carver, print maker, graphic artist, jewellery maker, illustrator, author and broadcaster.  He elevated the stature of Haida (Indian) art from the category of an ethnological curiosity to a highly respected fine art form.  Since his death, the degree of his contribution to the 20th Century renaissance of Haida art and even the authorship of some of his best known works has become controversial.  However, there is no dispute that he was Haida art's most famous leader in the last three decades of the century and of his life.

He was born in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada and died in Vancouver, British Columbia where he had lived much of his life.  While a child he moved, with his family, several times between Victoria and Hyder, Alaska. Since 1939 he has lived briefly in Kelowna (B.C.), Windsor (Ontario), Kirkland Lake (Ontario), Rouyn (Quebec) and Kingston (Ontario) and for more extended periods in Toronto (1948 - 1951), Vancouver (1951 - 1968) and Montreal (1969 - 1973). He returned to Vancouver in 1973 where he lived for most of the rest of his life except for periods in the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii), home of the Haida, and at his wife's home in France.
His sculpture, carving and jewellery mediums were gold, silver, wood, ivory, argillite, abalone, and bronze.  His prints are lithographs and silkscreen (serigraphs).  His subjects were Haida images, figures, legend, mythology, spirituality, symbolism, allegory and iconography.  His style was a complex blend of Haida (1) formalism and western naturalism.
While he was working, for the CBC (2), in Toronto, he studied conventional European jewellery making at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute for two years, followed by an apprenticeship at the Platinum Art Company.  In 1968 he attended the Central School of Design in London, England for one year, on a Canada Council senior fellowship to improve his goldsmith techniques.  However, the study of the highly conventionalized formal structure of Haida art was, because of the absence of any living practitioners, a largely self directed effort.

In 1951, he began the task by seeking out examples in museums and ethnographies in libraries.  He studied and sometimes copied these objects in an effort to understand the process and principles of their design.  He was initially introduced to the art form by his maternal grandfather Charles Gladstone (1877-1954), a Haida silversmith, and was also inspired by the work of the famous Haida artist Charles Edenshaw (c. 1839-1920) (3).  In the end, Reid, who was raised entirely in the European/North American society of his father, was considered the first artist born in the twentieth century to become a master of Haida art, and perhaps, saved it from extinction (4).  In 1958 he left broadcasting and became a fulltime artist.
Some of his major works and artistic accomplishments are the "Haida Village" at the University of British Columbia, which includes two houses and seven totem poles (1958-62); the 55 foot tall Skidegate heraldic pole (1976-78), the first totem to be raised in his mother's village in a century; the 4.5 ton cedar sculpture Raven and the First Humans in UBC's Museum of Anthropology (1980); a bronze killer whale sculpture, The Chief of the Undersea World, for the Vancouver Aquarium (1984); the large bronze frieze Mythic Messengers, at Teleglobe Canada, Burnaby (1984); the canoe Lootaas (Wave Eater) commissioned for Expo 86 (Vancouver); Phyllidula, The Shape of Frogs to Come, a carved red cedar polychrome frog (1986), at the Vancouver Art Gallery; the monumental (14 feet tall) Spirit of Haida Gwaii (The Black Canoe) bronze, commissioned for the Canadian embassy in Washington, DC (1991); and its green counterpart, The Jade Canoe (1996), at the Vancouver International Airport.  There are other, much smaller, but highly acclaimed works, such as his gold and diamond necklace (1969), the gold Beaver, Human, and Killer Whale Box (1971), the gold Bear Mother Dish (1972), and the boxwood carving, The Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clamshell (1970). (5)
In addition to the pieces in public spaces his work is also in many private, corporate and public collections.  The public collections include the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), the Canadian Museum of Civilization (Hull, Quebec), the British Museum (London, England), the U.B.C. Museum of Anthropology (Vancouver), the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (B.C.) and the McMichael Canadian Collection (Kleinburg, Ontario).  Many important silver works may even be in dresser drawers or modest jewellery boxes all over the world, having originally been bought as souvenirs of a trip to Canada decades ago.  The owner perhaps totally unaware that the mark on the back reading "Haida Art Reid" is the signature identifying it as a rare art treasure created by a master carver.
Among his many awards are honorary degrees from the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, the University of Victoria, the University of Western Ontario, York University and Trent University.  He has also received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award  in 1994, and was made a member of  the Order of British Columbia (1994) and an Officer of France's Order of Arts and Letters.  In 1996 he was honoured with a postage stamp featuring the "Spirit of Haida Gwaii".  And, while in a possible oversight he was never awarded the Order of Canada, a compensating honour could be that multiple images of his art, his name and his birth and death years have been engraved on the obverse side of the Canadian twenty dollar bill since 2004.
As a very prominent artist his work is discussed in many books, there are also numerous magazine stories, newspaper articles, radio interviews and television stories going back to the early 1950's.  He is listed in  A Dictionary of Canadian Artists (1974), by Colin S. MacDonald; in The Collector's Dictionary of Canadian Artists at Auction (2001), by Anthony R. Westbridge and Diana L. Bodnar; in The Canadian Encyclopedia (1985), Hurtig Publishers; in the Encyclopedia of British Columbia (2000); and in the 1999 and 2006 versions of E. Benezit.
His work is also illustrated and discussed in  Vancouver Art and Artists 1931 - 1983 (1983), by Luke Rombout and various contributors; in Great Work - An Overview of Contemporary British Columbia Artists (1996), by Melanie Gold; in Landmarks of Canadian Art (1978), by Peter Mellen; in Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast (1979), by Hilary Stewart; in Haida - Their Art and Culture 1982), by Leslie Drew; in The Legacy (1980), by Peter Macnair, Alan Hoover, and Kevin Neary; and in The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii "(1996), by Terren Iiana Wein.  There are also the biographies Bill Reid (1986), by Doris Shadbolt; Bill Reid: Beyond the Essential Form (1986) by Karen Duffek; and Bill Reid - The Making of an Indian (2004) by Maria Tippett.
Books Illustrated, written, or coauthored by Reid include; Indian Art of the Northwest Coast - A Dialogue on Craftsmanship and Aesthetics (1975), by Bill Reid and Bill Holm; The Art - An Appreciation in Arts of the Raven (1967), published by the Vancouver Art Gallery;  Out of the Silence (1971), by Bill Reid and Adelaide de Menil; The Haida Legend of the Raven and the First Humans (1980), by Bill Reid; and The Raven Steals the Light (1984), by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst.
The  television specials about him include "Looking at Art",  CBC July 27/54; "Carvers of the Totem Pole", CBC Nov.1/57; "The Farewell Screen", CBC July 19/68; "Globe Trotting: Reid in Paris", CBC Oct 10/89; "Haida Gwaii in Washington", CBC Nov.18/91; "The Private Bill Reid", CBC Mar.1/94; "The Grand Old Man of Haida Art", CBC Jan.14/96; "The Jade Canoe", CBC Oct.25/97; "Bill Reid Remembered", CBC Mar.13/98; "Portrait of the Artist", CBC Oct.12/99;"The Spirit of Haida Gwaii" (Concert), CBC Nov.14/02; and "Raven in the Sun: The Life and Times of Bill Reid", CBC Dec.2/03.
(1)The Haida are an indigenous people of the Northwest coast of North America. Their ancestral home is the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia known as "Haida Gwaii" and the southern half of Prince of Wales Island in the Alaska Panhandle.  Haida art is the major component of Northwest coast Indian art. Its most recognized element being the totem pole.
(2) Reid worked as a broadcaster, writer and narrator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in radio and TV from 1948 to 1958.  He had a very strong voice. Examples of many of his broadcasts can be accessed online.
(3) Interestingly, great grandsons of Charles Edenshaw, Robert Davidson (1946) and Jim Hart (1952), perhaps the most famous living Haida artists were students and assistants of Bill Reid.
(4) Maria Tippett in her book  The Making of an Indian has a slightly less heroic view of Reid's solitary efforts to save Haida art.  She points out the contribution of Chief Mungo Martin a totem carver who played a major role in Reid's early development and education.  She does note that Reid was, however, the best known and that his major contribution was to introduce the concept that native artists could compete for and get important commissions and work with important patrons.
(5) For the large pieces Reid utilized the skilled assistance of other Haida and non-Haida carvers and specialists, most notably Kwagulth carver Douglas Cranmer and sculptor George Rammell. Haida artist Jim Hart (see AskART) is also recognized as being a major contributor in the creation of many of Reid's works. For the controversial story of Hart's part in carving some of Bill Reid's most famous masterpieces see his story in AskART.

In 1999, a year after Bill Reid's death, the UBC Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver decided to preserve a 50 foot house-frontal totem, on its grounds, carved by Bill Reid and Douglas Cranmer in the 1950s. It would be taken down and moved inside out of the elements, where it had been standing since its creation. To replace it, the museum and the Canada Council Millennium Arts Fund commissioned Jim Hart to carve a new pole. Hart carved the 50 foot 750 year old Western red cedar totem and presided over the pole-raising ceremony, attended by 2500 people, on October 1, 2000. He was assisted in the project by team of artists that included carvers Paul White, Oliver Bell, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Nika Collison and Ernie Collison. The totem is named "The Respect to Bill Reid Pole".

"I want to pay respect to him (Bill Reid). I learned a lot by being with him; I learned a lot by watching him, too. He is one of us…The idea of the pole is that Bill was holding us on his shoulders as a people for a time" - Jim Hart, 2000.

Source: UBC Museum of Anthropology

Prepared and contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke.

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About  Bill (William Ronald) Reid

Born:  1920 - Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Died:   1998 - Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Known for:  wood carving, sculpture, prints, graphics, jewelry making