The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art has reopened its doors just in time to mark the centennial of its namesake, whose legacy lives on not only in his own timeless works, but in those of a new generation.
To celebrate, the gallery is ready to open a multifaceted new show curated by Reid’s last apprentice, Gwaai Edenshaw. The massive exploration of his life and work illustrates vividly that the Haida-art icon’s influence carries on through today’s Northwest Coast artists—and far beyond.
Edenshaw has worked for the past year to put together a tribute that shows all the complexity of Reid as a goldsmith, sculptor, activist, radio personality, and mentor—a man of mixed Haida and Scottish-German roots who, at 23, travelled to Haida Gwaii and began a lifelong exploration of his Indigenous identity.
The resulting exhibit, To Speak With a Golden Voice, spans early sketches through to key pieces from Reid, as well as works from colleagues such as Robert Davidson and Beau Dick. It also includes a new work by contemporary Haida artist Cori Savard and a sound installation that integrates Reid’s voice by singer-songwriter Kinnie Starr. (The show follows strict social-distancing protocols.)
“I think the complexity will shine through—certainly the multidimensionality of who he was, the good the bad and the ugly, but also the humanity,” Edenshaw tells the Straight. “Bill is such a giant in our imaginations—even for those of us who knew him well. It can be easy to just look at his accomplishments and forget his humanity.”
The Haida artist and filmmaker, raised on Haida Gwaii, met Reid as a baby, when his father, Guujaaw (Gary Edenshaw), served as Reid’s assistant in the raising of the Dogfish Pole in Skidegate.
“I actually walked for the first time on the day they put up the pole,” Edenshaw relates.
Edenshaw was 16 when Reid asked the budding artist to apprentice with him.
“He arranged for me to go down and live with him and I was pulled out of school,” Edenshaw recounts. “When I went into his apartment-studio, you know, it was pretty awe-inspiring to see all this different work and the pieces of his that were already iconic to me—some just kind of lying around in a pen drawer.
“He would set me on projects and assignments,” Edenshaw adds, agreeing Reid had a larger-than-life personality. “It was quite a bit of classical training, where he would have me do copies of different pieces that he thought would enrich my understanding of form, then he would edit and critique them.”
Edenshaw has gone on to work on everything from the dramatic film Edge of the Knife to comic books and totem poles, often creating gold, silver, and argillite jewellery. He says disentangling Reid’s specific influences on his artworks is a complex task, training as he did under his own father (who himself worked under Reid), taking drawing classes with Robert Davidson, and studying other masters. But one Reid quote has guided much of his approach.
“There was one statement that Bill made to me that has stuck with me forever,” Edenshaw says. “He told me that Haida art, when it’s done right, should look like an explosion that’s about to happen, rather than one that’s already happened. That refers to the tension in the line. That is the sensation you should feel if you stand in front of a piece of Haida art.”
Reid’s life’s work also helped paved the way for artists like Edenshaw and countless others to build careers—to find galleries and buyers to collect their creations.
“I don’t really know what compelled him in his time to pursue the art in itself, because the market as it existed was pretty limited and the understanding of it as ‘Indian craft’ by so much of the world,” Edenshaw reflects. “There were a few little pockets that recognized the value—anthropologists, mostly, and surrealists seeking to collect Northwest Coast stuff. But Bill and Robert and others, they developed a market. One thing they managed to do is articulate the complexity and the science behind the art and share that with the world, and once people were able to articulate how the art came together, that was a means for new people to get into it.”
As To Speak With a Golden Voice shows, Reid’s lasting impact goes far beyond the artists who knew and worked with him directly.
Painter and carver Savard says living on Haida Gwaii has allowed her a special connection to his art and its influences. “I think that the body of work that Bill produced set a high bar for what can be achieved through the art, across every medium,” says the artist from Skidegate. “Living on Haida Gwaii, we get to study a few of his works in person. The Haida Gwaii Museum houses a totem pole and a war canoe [Loo Taa], both carved by Bill—monumental examples that I feel are crucial for the next generation to study.”
In the new painting she’s created for the exhibit, she draws from her memories of seeing Reid’s famous canoe sculpture The Spirit of Haida Gwaii—and the connection to it she has through her mother, who introduced her to his artwork when she was young.
“It’s a reflection on some experiences I had as a child, growing up away from my community on Haida Gwaii,” Savard, who grew up in Quebec and Ontario, hints of the painting she’ll unveil at To Speak With a Golden Voice. “The Shark crest is a sub-crest of my clan; I chose it to represent my mother. She taught me about what it meant to be Haida, and what she knew about the art using what was available to her—in this case, the collection of Northwest Coast art, in the Grand Hall of the Canadian Museum of History.” The museum was a place Savard frequently visited growing up, Reid’s work acting as one of her beacons.
For singer-songwriter Starr, who has Mohawk, Dutch, German, and Irish roots, Reid’s journey mirrors some of her own questions of identity and mixed heritage. Working on the show’s sound installation has helped her build what feels like an intimate emotional bond with an artist she never met.
Soon after moving here in the early ’90s, she says, a counsellor at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre suggested she study “mixed-blood artists who had a difficulty understanding their place and position in society at large and the art world”.
“I just had a feeling I didn’t belong anywhere, and then I was introduced to Northwest Coast art,” the artist explains. “I found a lot of encouragement in his story, in the fact that his mother had relocated her kids to Victoria because she wanted Bill to have a fighting chance at a time when being part Native was not okay. I found a lot of resilience in his story, and that he had spent a lot of his life not identifying as a Haida.
“He never referred to himself in the first person as Haida,” she continues. “For me, I see that as a lot of mixed-blood people never feel like they are able to claim their identity and be themselves. So for me it’s heartbreaking.”
Starr has combed through extensive vocal archives of Reid’s career to create her commissioned sound-based artwork. Reid had a career as a CBC announcer, and there are extensive recordings of his thoughts on Northwest Coast art. All of it is recounted in his mellifluous, radio-friendly voice—the one that led to Reid’s Haida name Kihlguulins (“Golden Voice”).
You’ll hear an artful collage of those sound bites hidden in different spots in the gallery, activated by motion detectors. Starr says she wants it to feel like Reid is whispering to you as you look at the works.
“I’m trying to do an ode to his sense of humour,” Starr adds. “One thing I know is that, outside of Indigenous society, a lot of people consider Indigenous nations to be broken and upset. But inside the Indigenous communities, humour is everywhere. In a lot of these [clips] he sounds like he was quite eccentric and funny.”
Hearing his voice has brought her closer to the influential icon—a goal of the overall exhibit as well.
“I feel like I know him better, and that feels like a rich opportunity because he was so important to me at a distance as a young woman,” Starr says.
To Speak With a Golden Voice runs at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art from Thursday (July 16) to April 11, 2021.