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.
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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
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
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.
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
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
(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
(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 http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Billreidpole/english/background/index.html.
Prepared and contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke.
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