Visiting Vancouver #3: In the Footsteps of Bill Reid

Visitors to Vancouver have a unique opportunity to see first hand the wonderful sculptures done by Bill Reid (1920-1998). The offspring of a Haida mother and an American father, he became a multi-talented artist equally at home in sculpture, engraving, painting, print-making and jewellery. Inspired by the work of noted Haida artist Charles Edenshaw, Reid did stints in Toronto and in London, England before returning to Vancouver where he became recognized as Canada’s leading expert on Haida art and “the father” of the Northwest Coast Indian Art revival in the 20th Century. That revival included a resurrection of traditional Haida motifs and symbols which had been forgotten, restoration of many totems left derelict across the province, a resurgence of young native artists, and the application of their traditional skills to new materials.

Apart from his artistic output, Reid was an activist for native rights in Canada and an ardent defender of the cultural and environmental heritage of Haida Gwaii. He was among those who protested the clear cutting of the ancient rain forests on Lyell Island (near South Moresby) that led to the wonderful Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve we can enjoy today. When he died, relatives and friends paddled Reid’s brightly coloured canoe, the Lootaas which he had carved for Expo ’86, up the Pacific coast to return his ashes to his mother’s village on Tanu Island.

There is a Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art at 639 Hornby Street in Vancouver, open Wednesday to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. which provides an overview of all his artistic output. In my view, however, the most spectacular introduction to Reid, his work and his culture is at The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. This magnificent, open concept museum, at 6393 N.W. Marine Drive, in the north-west corner of the U.B.C. campus (closed Mondays), is well worth a visit. Reid and Namgis artist, Doug Cranmer, were responsible for The Haida Village built in 1960-1962. The village, consisting of two cedar-plank long houses and five original totem poles, has now been supplemented with eight other totems from other native cultures, including one in honour of Bill Reid. The design of the Museum itself, by noted Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, replicates the lines of the Haida art in its midst. Inside the Museum are more totems and artifacts representative of North Coast art. The most breath-taking piece is Reid’s 4.5 ton cedar sculpture of Raven and the First Humans (1980) depicting a Haida creation story and displayed in a gallery Erickson designed to emphasize the drama of the creation. Of both the story and the sculpture itself.

The Vancouver International Airport has a large and rich collection of native and Inuit art on display for travellers passing through. It is worth taking the time to arrive at the airport early to visit Bill Reid’s bronze casting of The Jade Canoe in the rotunda of the International Departures Level. This is a duplicate of the black bronze cast Spirit of Haida Gwaii (1991) commissioned by the Canadian government for the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. It portrays a canoe filled with human and animal figures, each symbolic in the Haida culture. The signage for the sculpture explains its features. It is fun to find the many figures and see how they are portrayed.

Yet another Bill Reid masterpiece is the bronze killer whale sculpture, The Chief of the Undersea World (1984), at the Vancouver Aquarium. The Raven and the First Humans and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii appeared on the Canadian twenty-dollar bills from 2004 to 2012. In April 1996, Canada Post issued a stamp, “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii,” as part of its Masterpieces of Canadian Art series. Enjoy.


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  1. Frances

    Thanks so much…. If I cant squeeze in the Museum on Sunday, we will have to be satisfied with Airport.

  2. Malcolm

    Well done… I did not know that the “Spirit…: at YVR was a replica. It is an impressive artifact and one that has almost become known as a symbol of YVR..

  3. John

    That’s a great article….. I really love both the Raven/Clamshell and the YVR Canoe. Both are excellently displayed. I think there was a 3rd “Spirit of Haida Qwaii” – an identical white canoe was displayed in the National Museum of Civilization in Hull. BTW Reid has also done beautiful work in gold and silver. He was pretty influential in revitalizing the whole West Coast Native Art form.

    • Marion

      Thanks John. According to my research, plaster casts of both the Raven/Clamshell and The Spirit of Haida Qwaii are on display in the Museum in Hull.


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