Bill Reid was born in 1920 to a Haida mother and a European father. While working as a broadcaster with the CBC in Toronto in the early 1950s, he studied jewelry-making at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, and later studied classic European jewelry-making at the London School of Design. He combined European jewelry techniques with the Haida art tradition. His passion for Haida art was kindled by a visit to Haida Gwaii in 1954 where he saw a pair of bracelets masterfully engraved by the great carver and his great-uncle, Charles Edenshaw, after which, to use his own words, “the world was not the same.”
For the next fifty years Reid embraced many art forms. He gradually explored his rich Haida cultural heritage, studying early ethnographic publications, museum collections, and surviving examples of strong works from Haida Gwaii, always trying to understand the logic behind the form.
Inspired by the deeply carved messages of the totems and the lush beauty of the Queen Charlottes, Reid would go on to create many powerful sculptural masterpieces. “The Raven and the First Men”, a native version of the birth of mankind, and “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii”, showcased at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, brought international acclaim. But his crowning achievement was “Lootaas” (“Wave Eater”) — a 15-metre war canoe carved from a single cedar log.
Reid both celebrated and defended the Haida, using his fame to champion their land claims. When he died in 1998, the Haida took him home, bringing his remains back to his mother’s ancestral village, Tanu, aboard “Lootaas”.
Reid created over 1500 works over his long career, from the ‘monumentally small’ to the ‘exquisitely huge’. In addition, and perhaps of greater impact were his parallel careers as broadcaster, writer, poet, storyteller and communicator.
Bill Reid was the pivotal force in introducing to the world the great art traditions of the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast. His legacies include infusing that tradition with modern ideas and forms of expression, influencing emerging artists, and building lasting bridges between First Nations and other peoples.
Bill Reid (1920-1998), acclaimed Haida master goldsmith, carver, sculptor, writer and spokesman, was one of Canada’s greatest artists.
** Thanks to the Bill Reid Foundation for this in-depth bio.
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