Show celebrates Haida artist
One of the most important artists to emerge in the past century, the late Haida master Bill Reid celebrates his centenary this year. In a new exhibit titled To Speak with a Golden Voice, Reid is explored through four different streams — voice, process, lineage and legacy. Sound plays a key role in the whole exhibit experience through musician Kinnie Starr’s commissioned soundcape.
Some major works that haven’t been previously displayed are on exhibit. But the more crucial elements of the show are the great number of archival photos, recordings and works in progress being featured. The exhibit is the first major one to take place at the Bill Reid Museum of Northwest Coast Art since the COVID -19 pandemic lead to it closing.
Gwaai Edenshaw guest curated the exhibit. Considered to be Reid’s final apprentice, Edenshaw spent a year studying under Reid when he turned 16. Gwaai is acclaimed for his metalwork, as well as pieces in bone, slate, wood and other media. Edenshaw’s famed activist father Guujaaw also worked with Reid. There is no familial connection between Reid’s famous uncle Charles Edenshaw, and either Gwaii Edenshaw or Guujaaw.
Aside from some eye-opening pieces by Reid, To Speak with a Golden Voice also includes pieces from Robert Davidson, Beau Dick, Cori Savard and Gwaii Edenshaw. Singer-songwriter Starr contributes a commissioned audiovisual soundscape that plays through parts of the exhibit giving attendees a sense of Reid being in the room too. Prior to becoming key in the resurgence of Northwest Coast art, Reid worked as a CBC announcer, where he was celebrated for his recognizable voice.
One of Reid’s given Haida names was Kihlguulins (golden voice). This exhibit’s title takes this into account.
“One of the things you’ll see a lot of in this show is a lot of works in progress, which is a very different experience than all of his wellknown iconic works you see everywhere,” said Gwaai Edenshaw. “A lot of these pieces hold a place close to me as they come out of that period when I was with him and he was at an age where his Parkinson’s disease was really taking effect. He couldn’t hold pencils or tools very well and he would get incredibly bad intention tremors when approaching the more detailed aspects of the work.”
For someone who had made a living engraving and making jewelry, Edenshaw admits it was a nightmare scenario. But he notes how his mentor managed to keep exploring new ideas creatively. The very first display in the exhibit shows off a quartet of sketches that appear as somewhat ethereal, complete paintings on their own.
“Those shakes and tremors would lead to a kind of automatic marking on the page, which would build up until you could see both the line through as well as what appeared to be wood grains in the pictures,” he said. “I think that he was putting his condition to work for him. These pieces aren’t mistakes or ideas, but rather finished and look almost like they were done on wood due to the effects of the markings.”
Edenshaw says that one of the epiphanies he had about how Reid worked was that he would do one side of a work such as a large carving and work from top to bottom. Then he would start up the other side. Not only is this profoundly challenging for maintaining symmetry, but it also lead to a joking title for those students and apprentices who worked with him finishing up the other half: “The Other Side Machine.”
“I do a lot of carving by myself and keep my symmetry by carving equally on both sides,” said Edenshaw. “The first pole that we carved we used so many tools I was unfamiliar with, including one of Bill’s design called the Rabbit which enabled you to reach around and do measurements to get within 1/16-inch of symmetry. But once you stood it up, it was clear that nobody with the most trained eye would ever be able to see any slight mistakes.”
BILL REID (1920-1998): TO SPEAK WITH A GOLDEN VOICE
When: Until April 2021 Where: Bill Reid Museum of Northwest Coast Art, 639 Hornby St.
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“We visited museums and looked at great works and found that symmetry is rarely exact, but rather a case of how you see it being what makes it work or not.”
The picture that begins to emerge of the artist is someone who was always looking at ways to bring more life into his pieces. As you work through the exhibit’s thematic threads, tracing Reid’s work at CBC, the lineage of contemporaries and successors to his legacy and personal insights from people who knew Reid outside the serious artist persona and points in between, the picture of a person who didn’t mind letting the Trickster into his creations emerges. Reid very much liked to impart individual ideas into everything. You can see this in the one-of-akind pieces from personal and institutional collections combined for the exhibit.
Finding the fundamental connections that Reid had to his Haida heritage proved both illuminating and challenging to Edenshaw. Understanding Reid was brought up at a time when his mother tried to shield him from his Indigenous background presumably for his own protection, it is rare to find anywhere in Reid’s legacy where he speaks of Haida people in anything but the third person. Edenshaw says he hopes that was something that the artist came to terms with, as he personally gained so much by being taken under Reid’s wing and that so many other young artists also found great inspiration from their interactions with the artist.
From young to old, the exhibit provides considerable insight into the way Reid worked out his wonderful final creations in metal, stone, wood and other materials.
On a workbench display in the Process section of the exhibit, there is an unusual looking pencil holder in what appears to be a carved marble precursor of an ergonomic mouse. The device is actually a custom tool for signing a signature onto a page that Reid’s wife, Martine de Widerspach-Thor, purchased for him to use. They item is easily overlooked when placed alongside display cases of the carving tools that belonged to Charles Edenshaw and Charles Gladstone. Anyone with interest in innovation will note the way the tools change as new techniques developed.
The exhibition catalogue in the fall of 2020 will feature Edenshaw, Nika Collison, Martine Reid, and more, commenting on the personality and process of the artist. A weekend of special events is planned for Bill’s Birthday Bash (Aug. 15-16. Tickets: idgallery.ca) which will include artist demos, livestream exhibition tours and more.
Anyone attending To Speak With a Golden Voice needs to be aware of COVID -19 protocols including two-metre social distancing, notouch payment and online screens, sanitizer stations and more.