One of downtown’s hidden gems is the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, just off Georgia, on Hornby Street. Here you’ll find a breathtaking collection of Reid’s art that varies from wire sculptures and a diamond necklace, to tribute carvings and statues.
I was fortunate enough to be given a private tour from Bill’s widow, Dr. Martine Reid. We walked around for about an hour as she spoke of intricate techniques as well as heartfelt personal stories about specific pieces.
The most widely-known Bill Reid works are probably The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe (located at Vancouver International Airport and on the Canadian $20 bill) as well as The Raven and the First Men located in the rotunda at the Museum of Anthropology. There are many other pieces of his around Vancouver including Chief of the Undersea World outside the Vancouver Aquarium.
Although Bill Reid was born to a Haida mother in 1920 he was not brought up in any kind of First Nations culture due to the laws and regulations of the day in Canada. Bill moved to Toronto in his 20s to be an announcer with CBC radio and it was there that he discovered this hidden passion.
In the Gallery you’ll find a small teapot (about the side of a marble) that Reid sculpted out of chalk when he was a young boy. Seeing this it’s obvious that he was destined to create great things in life, it just took him about 20 years to figure out his direction.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that he decided to take up jewelry making and exploring more of his mother’s Haida roots. He started his own journey to explore Haida Gwaii and discovered an art-form that intrigued him thanks to his maternal grandfather, Charles Gladstone who was an expert jeweler.
“He was bored, he was bored with radio announcing,” Dr Reid told me. “One day he saw a poster advertising a course in goldsmithing at Ryerson. He thought this was something he could do at night while he continued to do radio by day. So he learned classic European goldsmithing techniques with the idea that maybe one day he would do some bracelets, such as those he had seen being worn by his female relatives.”
Dr Reid said that by the end of his three year apprenticeship, Bill started making a few Haida pieces which you can now see on display at the Gallery. She commented on the rudimentary style of his very early works although to an untrained eye such as my own, they are still strikingly beautiful.
“Every piece here has a story,” said Dr Reid as we walked through the jewelry Gallery. Pointing to one of the items encased in glass she commented, “This is the first piece ever — 1949 and I know exactly the date — combining Northwest Coast art and a gemstone.” As we continued the tour I knew that I was getting more than an education in coastal art, I was also getting a history lesson.
“Breaking boundaries always,” continued Dr Reid, “Bill hated to repeat himself, he was always experimenting with new material, stone, and hinges. He was fascinated with mechanisms. He always said a good clasp should snap!”
Dr Reid told me about wearing the Milky Way necklace (an intricate piece made of 22K gold and a cluster of diamonds that also had a detachable brooch) for the unveiling of The Raven and the First Men in the presence of Prince Charles. The Prince commented on her sparkling accessory and when she told him it was made by her husband, who also carved the wooden sculpture before them, he seemed in disbelief. On top of the stunning artwork it was stories like these that left me spellbound after my visit to the Gallery.
Bill Reid passed away in 1998 and his ashes were sent up the coast by canoe (one he carved for Expo 86) and were scattered and interred in his grandmother’s village on Tanu Island in Haida Gwaii. His timeless work, through so many different mediums, tells countless stories and brings many ancient myths to life… and keeps them alive.
“It was an idea Bill and I talked about,” said Dr Martine Reid regarding the Gallery as well as the Bill Reid Foundation. “We loved the Museum of Anthropology but there was nothing else in Canada representing the contemporary art of Northwest Coast art. It took ten years to find a site and to realize our vision.” The Gallery opened in 2008.
The Bill Reid Gallery’s current exhibit Time Warp, continues Bill’s vision of combining the old with the new, and evolving techniques. Time Warp, on until January 2011, celebrates the contemporary textiles of the Northwest Coast featuring the fibre art of 20 emerging, mid-career and internationally recognized Aboriginal artists from Alaska, Yukon, BC, and Washington State.
Admission to the gallery is $10 for adults and they offer an annual membership for $30. You can view more of Bill’s history and work in this online exhibition and follow the gallery on Twitter @BillReidGallery.