Take a guided journey through Bill Reid’s artistic career in these three illustrated essays by Dr. Martine Reid.
By Dr. Martine Reid, independent scholar, author, curator.
Reid started his artistic career as a modern jeweler while living in Toronto. He was the first Haida artist to have used classic European jewelry-making techniques to bring a third dimension to traditional Northwest Coast and Haida two-dimensional or flat designs.
Bill Reid: Jewelry
With his new skills, Reid returned to Vancouver in 1951 to establish himself as a modern jeweler. In 1954 he traveled to Haida Gwaii where he saw a pair of deeply carved bracelets engraved by his very talented great-great uncle, Charles Edenshaw. Those sculptural bracelets left a deep impression on him. In his own words, “the world was not the same after that.”
Bill Reid called his skills and tool kit his “bag of tricks.” He used it like a magician to transform raw materials into objects of beauty such as body ornaments, brooches, earrings, bracelets, rings, and miniature boxes and chests decorated with traditional Haida designs. He carved them deeply, giving them a sculptural third dimension that was lacking in most ancient Haida jewelry work.
Reid studied nineteenth-century Haida art in many museums of the world to discover its conventions or rules and to explain those artistic principles to others.
Classic Northwest Coast art is called “formline” art, where a continuous line, usually in black, outlines the subject. Ovals, U-shapes, and other design elements are also used. A long period of British colonial rule and then Canadian laws forbade First Nations peoples from practicing their culture and art for many years. The conventions of formline art and the distinctive Haida style were nearly lost during that time.
Reid had no one to teach him the rules or conventions of traditional Haida art, so his only way of learning was to study and copy old tattoo and crest designs from book illustrations and museum pieces. Tattoo designs were crests figures, like European coats of arms, and/or guardian spirits that identified the wearers as members of Haida social groups. Tattoo designs were pierced or carved into human skin. Reid carved his copies of those designs in silver and gold jewelry pieces.
Gradually, Reid began to understand and unlock the secrets of the old designs and to rediscover the conventions of formline art.
Reid did many variations of his favourite creatures from Haida myths. In the late 1950s, he adapted one of Charles Edenshaw’s tattoo designs of the Dogfish to make brooches, first in silver and then in gold.
The names of the artists of most of the old pieces were not known. However, when Reid discovered who made an original design that he copied, he always inscribed the original artist’s name on the back of the piece he made from that design. He always respected and acknowledged the works of his ancestors who inspired him.
Reid studied a black-and-white photograph of a Grizzly Bear rattle done in classic Haida style that is in the British Museum (London, UK), and then he drew a pencil sketch of it. From the sketch he designed a silver brooch. They all show classic Haida features such as the broad eyebrows, deep eye sockets in the shape of an oval, and large nostrils.