Robert Bringhurst is on a mission. Talking by phone from Quadra Island, the thoughtful and erudite writer, who has published poetry, art history, a textbook of typography, and a visionary three-volume translation of Haida epic poems, discusses with gentle bewilderment recent attacks on friend and mentor Bill Reid. "I chanced to read Maria Tippett's biography of Bill Reid," he says, "and I was so awfully disappointed by this book that I decided to give this lecture as an opportunity to speak differently about the same subject."
The lecture in question--which takes place this Friday (February 6) at UBC and is called Finding Home: The Legacy of Bill Reid--arises not just from Tippett's recent biography, Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian (Random House Canada, $39.95); a 1999 cover story in Maclean's also raises Bringhurst's ire. "If a magazine as reputable as Maclean's basically slits its own throat, it's time to ask, 'What the hell is going on? Why is it possible for such animosity to explode like that? Why is Maria Tippett, an intelligent woman, so incredibly deaf to what Bill Reid accomplished?' I don't want to go on a witch-hunt and put blame on anyone's doorstep--that's easy enough to do--I want to know why it's happening."
Finding Home is not his first response to Bill Reid.
"We hear the quicklime in her voice each time she mentions another of Reid's girlfriends," Bringhurst wrote in a November 8 review in the National Post, "another of his moments of self-advertisement or depression, another of the instances in which he changed his mind. Strictness is good for little in the absence of understanding, and good for nothing at all in the absence of love." The Globe and Mail's John Bentley Mays, meanwhile, was more elusive: "Destroying Bill Reid may seem like an unwelcome task for a scholarly historian of art and culture, but Tippett, an art historian whose works include a Governor-General's awardí‚ winning biography of Emily Carr, goes about her job seriously, in the patient spirit of an inquisitor preparing a bill of indictment." Robin Laurence's review in the Georgia Straight made reference to Tippett's "sour denunciations and pious hindsights".
Such a diversity of opinion makes some sense in the context of Reid's own life and artistry, bound up as both were in the spectrum of experiences and practices that grew out of the artist's background (Reid's father was white; his mother was Haida), in his professional life--Reid spanned cultural genres, working as a radio broadcaster, a jeweller, a carver, a sculptor, a curator, and an author--and even in his art, which ranged from the traditional to its opposite.
It's no wonder Bringhurst opened his introduction to the excellent Solitary Raven: The Selected Writings of Bill Reid (Douglas & McIntyre, 2000) by arguing that Reid "lived and worked at the intersection of two powerful traditions in the arts--one nurtured over centuries in the rich, seahunting villages of the northern Northwest Coast of North America, the other in the city-states of Europe. Unlike many people caught in similar positions, Reid rose to the demands that these traditions made on one another, so that both came to flourish in his work without either losing its identity."
(There is such fodder for critical discussion, such a forest of ambiguity to explore, that the proceedings of a 1999 UBC symposium will appear this spring in the extensive Bill Reid and Beyond: Expanding on Modern Native Art [Douglas & McIntyre, $45], edited by Karen Duffek and Charlotte Townsend-Gault.)
None of these multiplicities were lost on Reid, who died in 1998. In his long journey back to the Haida side of his roots, he encountered criticism, particularly for cultural appropriation, and met it head-on. "Are we involved in exploiting the culture"? Reid wondered during a 1983 panel discussion at the Royal British Columbia Museum, a transcript of which is reprinted in Solitary Raven. "The question is one which has bothered me ever since I started doing this thing. It doesn't bother me very much most of the time, but it nags. I'm in the business of creating objects, borrowing from the work of my predecessors, with whom I have a very tenuous connection. I'm to all intents and purposes a good WASP Canadian. I look like one, I have the upbringing of one, I've never lived in native surroundings. I've visited a lot, and I know a lot of people and have learned what I can of it. All I can say is that, a long time ago, the art got a hold of me and possessed me, and I've found it impossible to give up."
All of the above and more could make its way into Friday's lecture--Bringhurst is keeping the range of topics open until the last moment--but he says there are some restrictions, such as no accompanying visuals: "I don't want this to turn into a slide show where we all say, 'Oh, isn't that nice.' I'm going to hope that people have already had that experience [of seeing Reid's work] and we can go on now to talk about what does this mean. Bill certainly had his share of praise and adulation in death, as he did in life, but some of the responses have been so nasty one has to ask, 'Where is the problem? Where is the infection?' "
Harking back to Tippett, Bringhurst speaks without rancour (Noah Richler, one of Bringhurst's most steadfast backers, once described him as "a tall, brooding, self-contained figure who speaks quietly and gravely"): "A bad book, a failed book, is like a virus. It takes something away from you you never get back. In the case of a bad book, it's the opportunity a part of the population will never again have. If the one book they happen to read doesn't tell them the truth or doesn't tell them what is useful to know, then it's a crime."
Bringhurst hopes to persuade the audience of his own view of Reid's work and life, in part by pointing out the complexity of the persona that arose from the interaction between the two. "But every artist does that," he argues, "and in fact every human being who lives long enough becomes a mask, whatever we are: we become journalists or artists or train conductors or whatever we are; we become obligated to our families, our friends; we join political parties; we form opinions... We become masks of ourselves. Artists learn how to put those masks to work."
With diligence and reverence, Bringhurst seeks to prise off these masks, to hold them out for our appreciation and understanding, to allow us a glimpse through the eyes of someone who saw the world in a way that it will never be seen again.
Finding Home: The Legacy of Bill Reid begins this Friday (February 6) at 7 p.m. at the First Nations House of Learning (1985 West Mall, UBC). For tickets, $18, call 604-822-1444.