The Raven's Call

Beyond Haida 1968-1998

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

In London Reid refined his skills and techniques. More particularly, he learned the ancient technique of casting gold by the lost wax process. No longer would he have to construct hollow pieces by soldering small pieces of gold together. He could now carve a wax model, coat it with a hard plaster, make a mold, melt out the wax, and pour molten gold into the mold. Then he could break away the mold and finish the gold piece by hand. He would use that technique for many later projects in his third phase of work regardless of the materials -- gold, silver, or bronze.

In 1969, he settled in Montreal for three years where he completed an intricate gold and diamond necklace that he titled “The Milky Way.” He also created his famous “The Raven and the First Men” carving in boxwood which he would later cast in gold, and which he would later enlarge into the large yellow cedar raven displayed at the Museum of Anthropology and featured on the Canadian twenty-dollar banknote.

Sadly, he was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which would limit his physical movements in the later period of his life. He returned to Vancouver in 1973 where he lived and worked until his death in 1998.

The Haida and other Northwest Coast peoples make masks that open up to transform from one creature to another when the dancer wearing the mask pulls strings. The mask represents two creatures that share the same space at the same time; a concept unique to the Northwest Coast. “The Milky Way” gold and diamond necklace appears to be very modern, but it too is really two necklaces that occupy the same space at the same time. One is constructed of irregular three-dimensional pyramids -- little volcanoes with a diamond in their center -- and the other is made from gold wire. A brooch can be removed from the centre of the necklace and worn separately, so “The Milky Way” is really made of three pieces occupying the same space.

Reid’s work became more complex and more three-dimensional in his later years. He made several gold repoussé bracelets, three-dimensional hollowware pieces, lost-wax pieces, and inlaid pieces of jewelry that were indeed deeply carved.

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.

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.

In 1986 Reid and his assistants carved “Lootaas” (“Wave Eater”), a 15-metre-long Haida canoe, out of a 750-year-old red cedar log. It was displayed at the world’s fair, Expo 86, in Vancouver. In 1987, a team of Haida paddlers paddled “Lootaas” 1,000 km up the BC coast and across Hecate Strait. That was the first long ocean canoe voyage by the Haida in more than a century. In 1989, to help celebrate the bicentennial or 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, Reid and his Haida crew paddled “Lootaas” up the Seine River in Paris.

In 1991, after five years of work, Reid and his crew of assistants completed the large bronze “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii” (“The Black Canoe”) and installed it in a reflecting pool at the Canadian Chancery in Washington D.C. Its black patina represents the black argillite slate carved by the Haida people. A second casting with a green patina (“The Jade Canoe”) is installed at the Vancouver International Airport. An image of “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii” was chosen to represent Canadian art and culture on the Canadian twenty-dollar banknote.

Most of Bill Reid’s large carvings and bronzes were done after he had developed Parkinson’s disease, demonstrating that his strong spirit could overcome his physical limitations. During his long creative journey, Bill Reid discovered the essence and rules of Haida art, so that other artists have been able to create many beautiful pieces that have their roots in the Haida tradition. His journey of rediscovery helped restore much of the dynamic power, magic, and possibility to an art form that had nearly died. Along the way, Reid discovered his own identity or “Haida-ness” and became a catalyst for the Haida and other Northwest Coast First Nations to rediscover their own art and power.