Bill Reid's Art

A guided journey

Take a guided journey through Bill Reid’s artistic career in these three illustrated essays by Dr. Martine Reid.

Beyond Haida 1968-1998

By Dr. Martine Reid, independent scholar, author, curator.

Photo: Carved boxwood Transformation Pendant, with liftable mask of “Dogfish Woman

Bill Reid
"Dogfish Woman" Transformation Pendant
Boxwood, 18k gold bugle bead collar,
textured gold tubular clasp
Pendant 8 cm diameter, liftable mask 5.5 cm L
Bill Reid Foundation Collection, BRFC#99
Gift of Dr. Martine Reid
Photo: Kenji Nagai

Photo: Haida Dogfish design necklace with gold pendant and collar

Bill Reid
Dogfish Transformation Necklace
Wearable in 5 different ways
22k gold, 18k gold, lost wax technique, repoussé, engraved, textured
Pendant 10 x 9 cm, collar 14 cm diameter
Bill Reid Foundation Collection, BRFC#21
Gift of Dr. Martine Reid, the Government of Canada and the BRF Trustees
Photo: Kenji Nagai

After returning to Vancouver in 1973, Reid designed the first series of Haida silkscreen prints, exploring a new medium and moving his art back from three dimensions to two.

To honor his mother’s village of Skidegate in Haida Gwaii, Reid carved and raised a 25-metre-tall totem pole in the village in 1978. That was the first pole raised in Skidegate in a hundred years.

Two years later, Prince Charles unveiled the large yellow cedar sculpture, entitled “The Raven and the First Men,” at the UBC Museum of Anthropology. Reid had placed his sculpture on top of the foundation of a former World War II anti-aircraft artillery gun placement. That piece and three others by Bill Reid are represented on the Canadian twenty-dollar banknote.

The Dogfish Woman

One of Bill Reid’s favourite mythic creatures was the elusive, mysterious and beautiful “Dogfish Woman,” a medicine woman from myth time who derived her power from the dogfish, which is a small shark. She could transform herself from woman to shark and back again. Her human nose would become a hooked beak that curved into her mouth. The snout of the dogfish became a crown or tiara in her human-like form, and she wore the labret or lip-plug in her lower lip, a sign of aristocracy among Haida people. Like her, Reid’s boxwood pendant could transform between a woman with shark-like features, or a shark with human-like features. Little human beings represented the dogfish’s backbone. Both human and shark could occupy the same space at the same time.

AUDIO: Dr. Martine Reid discusses the boxwood Dogfish Woman Transformation Pendant
(3:17, 1985)
Courtesy Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBC Archives

Audio transcript

When you are lucky to witness the creation of an object, from its conception to its realization, you see the journey which is involved, because, particularly in this case which is absolutely an incredible piece made out of boxwood – it’s a piece of boxwood that I brought from France for Bill – his favorite wood because the wood has a very honest grain, it’s almost like ivory, and you can be very precise.

This is one of my favourite pieces. This is the Transformation Dogfish pendant. And Bill started creating this object, the lady’s face, first. As you can see because of the gill slit and some of the other attributes of the Dogfish, she’s part Dogfish but she’s also part human. She has a labret. And she has this kind of a hooked nose, which is probably symbolizing that she is transforming herself into something.

Although Bill carved her alone initially with his ‘baby adze,’ as he refers to it, that he made especially to carve it, he thought she was rather lonely, although she was pretty – she was ‘a pretty lady,’ as he called her.

Once she was finished, perhaps after three or four months, because of course Bill works on other things as well, and because it takes time to conceive and to think of the realization of a project, and it is why I am also in love with Bill’s mind. He let’s things happen. He is not going to say, “Here is a story, I am going to illustrate it.” He starts with an idea, and then the idea germinates, develops, and then, yes indeed she looked lonely. If she had been finished like this she looked unfinished.

So as he felt that she looked quite lonely, he sliced another piece of the branch of boxwood and started carving her body, the body of the shark. And it is only then that he realized that he was dealing with a transformation myth – the Dogfish Woman, the lady shaman, deriving her power from the Dogfish Woman, being transformed into a Dogfish. And then her alter ego, the Dogfish, is taking place.

Not only is this a beautiful concept in its realization, but the concept of transformation, which is absolutely fundamental when you look at the art of the Northwest Coast, takes its place here, in the transformation mask, which exists only on the Northwest Coast, and also among some Inuit carvings as well, where two beings or sometimes more can occupy the same space at the same time. Here, Bill had translated the concept of the transformation mask into a pendant.

During the 1980s Reid completed several large bronze sculptures. The huge jumping Killer Whale at the Vancouver Aquarium called “Chief of the Undersea World” was installed in its pool in 1984. The long bronze frieze “Mythic Messengers” was completed in 1985 and is also represented on the Canadian twenty-dollar banknote. From a series of dreams, Reid created “Phyllidula -- The Shape of Frogs to Come,” which was purchased by the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Photo: “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii” (“The Jade Canoe”), “Dogfish Woman” detail

Bill Reid
"The Spirit of Haida Gwaii" ("The Jade Canoe"), "Dogfish Woman" detail
Bronze with jade patina; second and final bronze casting
3.89 m H x 3.48 m W x 6.05 m L
Collection of the Vancouver International Airport Authority
Photo: Rodney Allan Badger

Photo: Bronze Killer Whale sculpture with Haida design at the Vancouver Aquarium

Bill Reid
"Killer Whale, Chief of the Undersea World"
5.5 m H
Collection of the Vancouver Aquarium, Stanley Park, Vancouver
Photo: Reinhard Derreth

Photo: Large frog carved from red cedar and stained red and green

Bill Reid
"Phyllidula -- The Shape of Frogs to Come"
Red cedar, polychrome stain
42.5 cm H x 87 cm W x 119 cm L
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery
Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund,
VAG 86.16
Photo Credit: Vancouver Art Gallery