Bill Reid: The Man. The Legend
Each year, the Royal Canadian Mint proudly creates special circulation coins, each marking momentous milestones in our heritage, culture, and values. This year, the 2020 program commences by honouring influential Haida artist and cultural bridge-builder, Iljuwas (Bill Reid).
A visionary artist, Bill Reid (1920-1998) is often credited with bringing Haida culture to the attention of the whole world. But who was Bill Reid, and how did someone who referred to himself as a “maker of things” rather than an artist or activist, invigorate the visual language of the Haida nation? Let’s start from the beginning.
The early years
William Ronald Reid Jr. was born in Victoria B.C on January 12, 1920. His mother, Sophie Gladstone was Haida, and his father, William Ronald Reid Sr. was of Scottish and German origin. Like his mother, Reid was born a member of the K’aadasga Kiigawaay Raven Wolf Clan of T’aanuu, and as his career and legacy would later prove, being Haida was not only in his blood, but so was making art.
Descendant of greatness
At age 23, Reid visited his mother's home village of Skidegate, where he met his grandfather Charles Gladstone. A carver of argillite and an engraver of silver bracelets, Gladstone taught Reid about Haida art, and introduced him to the work of the great nineteenth-century Haida sculptor Charles Edenshaw – Reid’s great-great-uncle.
Though Edenshaw later became his cultural hero, and artistic muse, Reid didn’t begin experimenting with art until his late 20s. While in Toronto, working as a broadcast journalist for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), Reid paid a visit to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). It was there that he further connected to his Haida roots and the forms that characterized its art, by way of their Northwest Coast collection. He was particularity interested in the Strong House Pole from the village of Tanu on Haida Gwaii. Feeling inspired, Reid decided to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and enrolled in a jewelry-making course at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.
Bill Reid at the CBC, c.1950. Courtesy of the CBC.
Perhaps it was the beauty of the Strong House Pole, or his invigorated interest in his heritage and lineage, or perhaps he could no longer ignore the budding artist within, whatever it was, what followed forever changed the world’s understanding and appreciation of Haida art and culture and turned Bill Reid the man, into Bill Reid the legend.
A twist of fate
When Reid returned to the West Coast, still working for the CBC, his interest in his roots continued to grow and, working diligently in his workshop, between shifts, he began applying European jewelry-making techniques to Haida designs. Reid continued to educate himself on the visual language of Haida art and tradition through the work of his ancestor Charles Edenshaw, whose stunning jewelry he first encountered at his grandfather’s funeral. By studying and copying Edenshaw’s work, Reid more deeply immersed himself in Haida art and culture.
In 1954, as fate would have it, a great opportunity crossed Reid’s path, an opportunity that gave him his first professional wood-carving experience, an opportunity that changed his life - and his name - an opportunity that, in time, enabled him to share a timeless vocabulary with the world, and inspire generations of artists who have followed in his footsteps.
The Royal British Columbia Museum and the University of British Columbia's (UBC) Department of Anthropology engaged in a totem pole salvage and restoration project. In joining this project, Reid not only had the chance to work under Kwakwaka'wakw master-carver Mungo Martin, he also received his official Haida name, Iljuwas - meaning “Manly One,” or “Princely One.”
In 1958, destiny stuck again. The Royal British Columbia Museum and UBC’s Department of Anthropology embarked on another remarkable project to reconstruct a section of a Haida village (two houses and five poles). Reid applied, was hired, resigned from the CBC and turned his full attention to his craft. The reconstruction project was completed in 1962, but this was only the beginning for Iljuwas.
Photo by Robert Keziere. Courtesy UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, Canada.
For the next 32 years Reid continued to create stunning pieces of art, pieces that infused his own modernist vision with Haida traditions and aesthetics. In his lifetime, Reid created more than 1,500 pieces, ranging from from jewelry, to silk-screen prints to the monumental carvings and the sculptures he is best known for today. Reid’s most recognized pieces include: The Skidegate Pole, The Raven and the First Men, Skaana—Chief of the Undersea World, Spirit of Haida Gwaii, Lootaas, The Jade Canoe.
Photos by Bill McLennan. Courtesy UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, Canada.
Another prominent and recognizable figure in Reid’s work is Xhuwaji (Haida Grizzly Bear), which today serves as the design for our 2020 $2 Bill Reid Commemorative circulation coin.
On March 13, 1998 Reid unfortunately lost his battle to Parkinson’s Disease, but thanks to his timeless art, the artists who he inspired and apprenticed, and his role in introducing the world to Haida art and culture, he will never be forgotten, and will forever be celebrated.