A Visit to the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art

The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in Vancouver features works by the renowned Haida artist Bill Reid (as well as works that commemorate his life) and provides a showcase for indigenous Northwest Coast artists.

The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art

The full set of photos can be viewed at a higher resolution (e.g., 2048 x 1365) here:

Northwest Coast Art

Northwest Coast Art refers to the style of art created by artists from First Nations tribes of the Northwest coast of North America such as the Haida, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth. Traditionally, the style often features heavily stylized motifs of animals (e.g., wolves, bears, ravens, eagles, orcas) humans and mythological figures in combination with re-occurring shapes and patterns. In more recent years, many artists have been creating more personal, expressive and abstract works.

Lithographic Stone with Killer Whale Design by Bill Reid, 1985 (Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art)
Killer Wale Design (detail view). In Haida mythology, orca symbolize many different things and they appear in quite a few stories. Orca may represent, among other things, strength and protection (for obvious reasons) and community and family (because they tend to stay in the same pod for life).

About Bill Reid

Nowadays, Northwest Coast Art is considered an important part of Canadian culture. If you visit the province of British Columbia, for example, souvenir shops are full of designs by the region’s indigenous artists, but this wasn’t always the case. Bill Reid (1920-1988) was influential in bringing indigenous art into the mainstream in Canada.

Portrait of Bill Reid Carving at Skidegate by Chris Hopkins, 2005 (Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art)

Bill Reid was born in Victoria, British Columbia in 1920. He was the son of an American (of Scottish-German ancestry) father and a Haida mother. His mother, however, had been educated in church-run schools that at that time sought to anglicize indigenous children. As a young woman, she did not openly reveal her ancestry. As a result, Reid only started to become vaguely aware of his indigenous ancestry when he was in his teens. When he was 23, he visited his mother’s hometown of Skidegate, where is met his maternal grandfather, Charles Gladstone, who had jewelry-making and carving skills, and whose uncle, Charles Edenshaw was an important 19th-century Haida artist.

During his twenties, Reid went about his life, working first in broadcasting and then moving into jewelry-making, where he first started incorporating Haida-influenced designs into his work. Starting from his early thirties, he immersed himself in learning about Haida art, studying and copying traditional designs and experimenting with a variety of mediums: word carving, lithography, sculpting and metalwork.

In the late 1960s, he started adding more of his own personal touches while retaining a distinct Haida identity. He gradually became one of the most well-known and respected artists in Canada.

Thus, his life and career reflected (and were an important part of) a long process of reconciliation in which indigenous culture went from being repressed and nearly forgotten to being celebrated as a vital part of the national identify.

Bill Reid’s Artworks

The gallery features many of Reid’s works. His most famous large-scale pieces like The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (which is featured at the end of this article) are not in the gallery, but there is a good representation of his work across different mediums.

The Raven and the First Men. This onyx sculpture is a small version of large cedar sculpture created for the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. It depicts a Haida creation myth in which Raven discovers a clam shell containing six people. He coaxes them to come out and experience the world.
Bill Reid, Mythic Messengers (detail view). This is a bronze frieze by Teleglobe Canada. It features various Haida mythic features. This part features the Bear family (a human woman married to the Bear prince, and their twin cubs) and Nanasimget, his wife, and her Orca abductor.
Killer Whale (jade patina) and wave base. This bronze sculpture is part of a series.
Xhuwaji – Haida Grizzly Bear. Red and black is the most frequently used color combination in Haida art.The original design was created for a ceremonial drum. Reid later collaborated with Terra Bonnieman to produce a serigraph of a refined version of the design, copies of which were sold to raise funds for the Artists for Kids Trust.
Bear Head, cast bronze sculpture. Quite often bears are portrayed with a protruding tongue. This represents the oral traditions of the Haida.
Pendant showing the transformation of Dogfish Woman. The dogfish is a kind of small shark. Dogfish Woman is a powerful, mythical shaman who is able to transform back and forth between her human form and dogfish form. In her human form, Dogfish woman has gills on her cheeks and there is a labret in her lower lip that makes it protrude (a sign of status among the Haida).
From this angle, you can see her dogfish form. Dogfish Woman is also featured in the photo at the very top of the page. She is the figure, second from right. on the back of a shark (the dogfish).

Art in Memory of Bill Reid

The gallery also features works created to commemorate Reid’s life.

Bent Corner Chest by Don Yeomans, 1998. This is a carved and painted chest depicting a wolf, raven, the moon, and Dogfish Woman. The chest was commissioned to transport Bill Reid’s remains to burial at Tanu, Haida Gwaii. Haida Gwaii is the archipelago where the Haida have lived for over 1300 years. The wolf is prominently featured on the front of the chest, as it is the crest of Reid’s clan. The bentwood box is a traditional kind of container among many Northwest Coast tribes. The four sides of the box are made from a single plank of wood which is bent at the corners.
Bent Corner Chest (detail view) by Don Yeomans. This part of the chest features a depiction of the moon, which is considered a kind of guardian spirit. The moon is also associated with transformation because of its role in changing the tides and bringing light into darkness. As noted earlier, Dogfish Woman, who is also portrayed on the chest, is another symbol of transformation. These are fitting symbols given that Reid had passed away, a kind of transformation, and that his life and career had involved a lot transformation.
James Hart’s totem pole honoring Bill Reid is a focal point of the gallery. James Hart was an assistant to Bill Reid and helped carve some of Reid’s most famous works including The Raven and the First Men and The Spirit of Haida Gwaii. Hart is the great-grandson of Charles Edenshaw and is a well-established artist in his own right.
James Hart’s totem pole: Celebration of Bill Reid Pole (detail view). The part of the totem pole depicts a wolf, which is Reid’s family crest.

Art by Contemporary Indigenous Artists

The gallery also showcases recent works by Northwest Coast Artists, many of whom bring a more modern feel to their work, while keeping it tethered to traditional styles and symbols. Here are five of the works that were on display when I visited:

Heiltsuk Body Suit 01, painting by Dean Hunt, 2018 (Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art). In this work, Hunt applies the design aesthetics of traditional bent-corner boxes to the human form as a kind of tattoo design (tattooing is also an important part of Northwest Coast culture).
Life II – Red Alert, painting by Corey Bulpitt (T’aakeit G’aayaa), 2018 (Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art). The artist keeps the traditional colors of black and red but moves into a much more abstract style. The work is based on a traditional salmon head design, which is overlaid with the letters L I F E. It is about trying to maintain a balance with (and connection to) nature. It was inspired by how urban development and fish-farming are destroying the natural spawning streams of wild salmon (which is part of the wider problem of the exploitation and mismanagement of natural resources).
Jiila Kuns, Creek Woman, carved mask by Corey Bulpitt. The mythological figure of Jiila Kuns is considered to be the ancestress of most of the Eagle clans of the Haida Gwaii. She and her daughter, Property Makes a Noise, are considered to be the originators of the Haida tattooing tradition.
Laxmihl: Where the Fire Ran Out by Nakitta Trimble, 2018 (Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art). This work is based on a Nisga’a myth—a cautionary tale about respecting nature. In the story, a pair of children torture a pair of salmon by cutting them open and putting burning sticks in one and a piece of shale in the other. A village elder then warns them that nature would respond in kind. Soon afterwards, a nearby volcano erupts. Lava engulfs the villages, killing many, before a supernatural entity, Gwaxts’agat, emerges from a mountain and stops the lava from flowing any further by blowing with its great nose.
Wolf Headdress by Robert Davidson, 1980 (Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art)

The Spirit of Haida Gwaiiat the Vancouver International Airport

This bronze-cast sculpture is Reid’s most famous work. It is not in the gallery, but if you have flown out of Vancouver International Airport you will have seen it. It features 13 mythological figures in a canoe and was inspired by 19th-century argillite carvings of canoes packed with animals, mythological figures and humans.

Bill Reid’s sculpture The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (at Vancouver International Airport) This side of the canoe features featuring from left to right: Raven, Ancient Reluctant Conscript, Wolf, Man (perhaps The Spirit of Haida Gwai, Frog and Bear

There are two versions of the sculpture. The first was commissioned for the Canadian embassy in Washington. That version has a glossy black patina reminiscent of traditional argillite carvings. This second version was commissioned by the Vancouver International Airport Authority and occupies a prominent place in the Departures Hall. This version has a patina that evokes the emerald green jade of British Columbia.

Who are the figures in the canoe? Let Bill Reid explain:

Here we are at last, a long way from Haida Gwaii, not too sure where we are or where we’re going, still squabbling and vying for position in the boat, but somehow managing to appear to be heading in some direction; at least the paddles are together, and the man in the middle seems to have some vision of what is to come.

Detail view: Bill Reid’s sculpture The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: Man, Eagle and Bear.

As for the rest, they are superficially more or less what they always were, symbols of another time when the Haidas, all ten thousand of them, knew they were the greatest of all nations.

The Bear, as he sits in the bow of the boat, broad back deflecting any unfamiliar, novel or interesting sensation, eyes firmly and forever fixed on the past, tries to believe that things are still as they were. The Bear Mother, being human, is looking over his shoulder into the future, concerned more with her children than with her legend. After all, they wandered in from another myth, the one about Good Bear and Bad Bear and how they changed, so she has to keep a sharp eye on them.

Detail view: Bill Reid’s sculpture The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: Bear, Bear Mother and their children

Next, doughtily paddling away, hardworking if not very imaginative, the compulsory Canadian content [the Beaver], big teeth and scaly tail, perfectly designed for cutting down trees and damming rivers.

Detail view: Bill Reid’s sculpture The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (at Vancouver International Airport)

And here she [Dogfish Woman) is, still the ranking woman of noble birth, yielding no place to the pretty Bear Mother. In spite of her great cheeks like monstrous scars, her headdress reflecting the pointed shape of the dogfish head, and her grotesque labret – in spite of all these, the most desirable and fascinating woman from myth-time. More magical than the Mouse Woman, as mysterious as the deep ocean waters which support the sleek, sinuous fish from whom she derives her power, Dogfish Woman stands aloof from the rest, the enormous concentration of her thoughts smouldering smoke dreams behind her inward-looking eyes.

Tucked away in the stern of the boat, still ruled by the same obsession to stay concealed in the night shadows and lightless caves and other pockets of darkness, in which she spends her immortality, the Mouse Woman lost her place among the other characters of her own myth, an important part of the Bear Mother story, and barely squeezed in at the opposite end of the boat, under the tail of the Raven. No human, beast or monster has yet seen her in the flesh, so she may or may not look like this.

Not so the Raven. There is no doubt what he looks like in this myth-image: exactly the same as he does in his multiple existences as the familiar carrion bird of the northern latitude of the earth. Of course he is the steersman. So, although the boat appears to be heading in a purposeful direction, it can arrive anywhere the Raven’s whim dictates.

Detail view: Bill Reid’s sculpture The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: Raven, Ancient Reluctant Conscript and Wolf

A culture will be remembered for its warriors, artists, heroes and heroines of all callings, but in order to survive it needs survivors. And here is our professional survivor, the Ancient Reluctant Conscript, present if seldom noticed in all the turbulent histories of men on earth. When our latter-day kings and captains have joined their forebears, he will still be carrying on, stoically obeying orders and performing the tasks allotted to him. But only up to a point. It is also he who finally says, “Enough!” And after the rulers have disappeared into the morass of their own excesses, it is he who builds on the rubble and once more gets the whole thing going.

The Wolf of the Haidas was a completely imaginary creature, perhaps existing over there on the mainland, but never seen on Haida Gwaii. Nevertheless, he was an important figure in the crest hierarchy. Troublesome, volatile, ferociously playful, he can usually be found with his sharp fangs embedded in someone’s anatomy. Here he is vigorously chewing on the Eagle’s wing while that proud, imperial, somewhat pompous bird retaliates by attacking the Bear’s paws.

Detail view: Bill Reid’s sculpture The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: Wolf

That accounts for everybody except the Frog who sits partially in and partially out of the boat and above the gunwales: the ever-present intermediary between two of the worlds of the Haidas, the land the sea.

So there is certainly no lack of activity in our little boat, but is there any purpose? Is the tall figure who may or may not be the Spirit of Haida Gwaii leading us, for we are all in the same boat, to a sheltered beach beyond the rim of the world as he seems to be, or is he lost in a dream of his own dreamings? The boat moves on, forever anchored in the same place.

from: The Bill Reid Foundation: The Spirit of Haida Gwaii

Go Further

This section includes discussion questions, an art challenge and links to online photo galleries and websites.

Photo Galleries

The full set of 54 photos can be viewed at a higher resolution (e.g., 2048 x 1365) here:

Go Further

Three Questions

  1. Which of the works presented on this page are most attractive to you? Why?
  2. Why is it important to preserve, celebrate indigenous cultures?
  3. The issue of cultural appropriation is a hot topic these days? Do you think is is OK for non-indigenous artists make use of indigenous styles and symbols? If so, what can such artists do to show they are inspired by a culture rather than appropriating that culture?

Art Challenge

Create a work  painting, drawing, sketch, sculpture or mixed media piece that represents a myth from your ancestry or nation.

~ photos and text by longzijun


Return to Artjouer’s Gallery of Artists

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