Obituary: Bill Reid
Wednesday 13 May 1998
With the anthropologists and curators Wilson Duff and Bill Holm, he relearnt the expressive qualities of Haida art, particularly the formalised, sculptural style dependent on the voluptuous intersection of deeply carved planes.
By the mid-20th century Northwest Coast art had been in apparently terminal decline. The Haida population had collapsed, through disease, from around 6,000 people in 1860 to fewer than 600 in 1915. Today, where there once were 126 habitation sites, there are now two.
Reid was born in 1920 to an American father and a native mother; this meant he was technically non-Indian, since at that time Indian women lost their native status on marrying whites, and he only discovered his Haida ancestry as a young man.
For nearly 20 years, he worked in commercial and then public radio. But from the 1940s onwards he also became entranced by jewellery, in particular by the Raven clan bracelets worn by his mother, and then by the Haida sculpture at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
During the 1950s his involvement with museums led to the rescuing, with Audrey Hawthorn, of totem poles from abandoned village sites in the Queen Charlotte Islands, and to exhibitions mounted with Wilson Duff. In 1968- 69 he spent 18 months studying jewellery techniques in London, at the Central School of Art, after which he created a wide range of elaborate jewels and gold and silver containers, all in Haida style.
He also carved, with the Qwakiutl carver Douglas Cranmer, half a dozen poles for the Museum of Anthropology. The museum houses his iconic Among the Raven and the First Men, a monumental carving in yellow cedar of the Haida myth in which the trickster Raven found the first people struggling to emerge from a clam shell. It was unveiled on 1 April 1980 by the Prince of Wales.
In the 1980s Reid started to work in bronze, creating a life-size canoe of Haidas, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, one version of which sits glowering behind the portico of the new Canadian Embassy in Washington.
In all things Reid was straightforward and unsentimental. When I first went to his apartment in Vancouver in 1978 he was working on a silk-screen print, to pay the rent, he said. When he showed the photographer Adelaide de Menil and the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter how to prepare a salmon - Indian style - they asked him if his grandmother had showed him how. No, he said, he learnt it from a television course put out by the University of British Columbia.
He was brave, in appearing at the barricades, long afflicted with Parkinson's disease, to help stop logging the temperate rain forests in the Haida homeland on the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1987. He collaborated with many anthropologists and curators, including Claude Levi-Strauss, who maintains that it was thanks to Reid that the Indian art of the Northwest Coast became known world-wide.
His most notable published work is the exhibition project, for Rice University, Texas, with Bill Holm, entitled Form and Freedom (1975). This explores the design principles and individual skills in a wide range of Northwest Coast carvings.
William Ronald Reid, sculptor: born Victoria, British Columbia 12 January 1920; twice married (one daughter, one stepdaughter); died Vancouver 13 March 1998.
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