A golden voice – one man’s legacy

Portrait of Bill Reid, c.1976. Painting by Chris Hopkins in 2005. | Photo courtesy of the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art

The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art reopens July 16, and the exhibition To Speak with a Golden Voice kicks off celebrating the centennial birthday of Bill Reid (1920–1998).

“Here at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, we wanted to show some of the classics but particularly some of those pieces that haven’t seen a lot of light,” says Gwaai Edenshaw, guest curator. “We also wanted to exhibit more of Bill Reid, the man. To this end, we have solicited and unearthed different thoughts on the man by a few of the many people he impacted. We have gathered up a serious trove of photographs that can help paint a picture and humanize this legend.”

The title of the show, To Speak with a Golden Voice, is a pun tryptic. Reid is famous for his gold work.

“A lesser-known piece of Reid is his wonderful voice, and Canadians enjoyed it during his time as a voice on the Canadian broadcasting corporation,” explains Edenshaw. “Not to mention that at one point he carried the name ‘Kihguulans’ which means ‘Golden Voice.’”

Legacy of a giant among Indigenous artists

According to Edenshaw, Bill Reid is a very significant person in the pantheon of Haida artists. He is well known for his giant sculptures like the Chief of the Sea, at the Vancouver Aquarium, and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, at the Vancouver International Airport.

Bill Reid, Raven Brooch, 1962, 22k gold. 6.3cm x 5.4cm. SFU Bill Reid Collection | Photo by Kenji Nagai

“Reid engaged the art of our people when there was limited interest in the art and even less understanding amongst the Canadian public,” says Edenshaw. “His access to markets, scholars, and his CBC colleagues was a big part of bringing the art from being the Surrealists’ secret to what it is today as a viable career option for any ambitious young Haida.”

“Through his years in Vancouver, many of the most well-known artists on the Northwest coast have moved through his studio. His influence passes through them to every corner of our little corner of the art world.”

A personal connection

“When I was sixteen, I was at our national House of Assembly, a Haida institute that allows the citizens to steer policy. I had just come to understand that I had been wasting my time in school, coasting along and just barely coming to grips with the basics. So, like a good teenager, I blamed the system, loudly,” says Edenshaw. “Reid happened to be sitting at the back on that day, and happened to agree with me, so he took me in as his apprentice. I spent a year with him and his wife Martine living in Vancouver.”

“It would be on account of my history with Reid that Beth Carter, the curator of the show, approached me last August to start working on his 100th birthday,” adds Edenshaw. “I look forward to seeing the pieces being up and hung, and getting back to carving a little more after, but it has been wonderful to have a little incentive to talk to people about Reid. I particularly liked heading out to Robert Davidson’s and hearing all of his stories about Reid, as well as talking to other artists.”

“I am most apprehensive about whether we have done justice to Reid’s sense of humour with this show. At the very least, he might be looking over from the beyond and know that we are still thinking about him,” says Edenshaw. “Ultimately, our biggest hope is that people will leave with a broader sense of Bill Reid.”

For more information, please visit www.mpmgarts.com/media/campaigns/bill-reid-gallery-to-speak-with-a-golden-voice.