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Opening date set for Bill Reid gallery Add to ...

If one is lucky, very lucky, when a dear friend and trusted adviser dies, one has the privilege of eulogizing him or her in a speech that lasts 10 minutes, maybe 20. Haida carver Jim Hart has been able to eulogize Bill Reid twice - not with words, but through the art the two men shared.

When the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art opens in Vancouver, it will feature a 6.7-metre-high "tribute pole" carved by Hart. The gallery's opening date - May 9, 2008 - will be officially announced later today, as Bill Reid gallery gets $1-million gift well as a $1-million donation pledged by Vancouver philanthropist Michael Audain and his Audain Foundation for the Arts. (Hart also carved what is known as The Respect to Bill Reid Pole, a 15-metre piece raised at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver in 2000.)

Hart and Reid started out in 1980 as student and teacher. Hart, then 28, and Reid, then 60, shared a common thread: Reid's mentor, masterful carver Charlie Edenshaw, was Hart's great-great-grandfather and Reid's great-great-uncle. Hart, who had never left Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), travelled from his home in Masset, B.C., to Vancouver to carve with Reid: an amazing privilege and a terrifying honour. "He was a big icon [at home]because he's Haida and he was doing all this wonderful work down here in the city," Hart says. "We held him up pretty high in our world, the Haida world. He was one of our champions, a real champion."

Reid is probably the world's best-known Haida artist and most certainly bears much of the responsibility for introducing Northwest Coast art to the world. Born in Victoria to a Haida mother and American father of European descent, Reid drew heavily upon his Haida ancestry for his carving, printmaking and jewellery, to great acclaim. His iconic work Spirit of Haida Gwaii is featured on the $20 Canadian bill (casts are displayed at the Canadian embassy in Washington and the Vancouver International Airport).

Reid died in 1998, after suffering from Parkinson's disease for many years. The following year, his widow, Martine Reid, set up the Bill Reid Foundation, to which she donated most of her personal collection of his art.

After years of searching for a location for a permanent public gallery, the foundation finally found one this summer off a courtyard in downtown Vancouver, a block away from the current home of the Vancouver Art Gallery. In September, the foundation moved in, and preparations are under way for a spring opening.

The foundation has collected more than 140 works, many of which have never been seen publicly before. When the gallery opens, it will showcase two large pieces: Reid's Mythic Messengers, an 8.5-metre-long bronze work featuring mythical characters, and Hart's tribute pole. "The two will work very well together as a kind of dual recognition of [Reid's]artistry on a very large scale - one vertical and one horizontal," foundation president George MacDonald says.

Hart's pole is officially a tribute pole for both Reid and their ancestor - its full name is A Pole in Celebration of Bill Reid and Charlie Edenshaw. Made from red cedar, it will feature a raven on the top (Reid was considered to be a raven in the Haida culture), a thunderbird, a wolf and, at its base, a Wasco (a mythical Sea Wolf creature: half-wolf, half-killer whale, and very powerful). "It's all connected to who [Bill]was," says Hart, who also plans to include a bronze plaque honouring the people who were important in Reid's life, including his grandchildren.

Surrounded by cedar shavings, Hart is carving the pole inside the gallery itself, working by a large window, next to a Chris Hopkins painting of Bill Reid carving a tribute pole dedicated to Sophie Reid, his mother.

"It's a pretty decent log," he says. "A few knots, but not that many."

Hart is now an established West Coast artist, but when he met Reid, he had never been to the city before and suddenly found himself surrounded by the upper echelons of culture and academia, working at the Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus, carving what was to become Raven and the First Men with Reid. Hart was terrified. "It was scary as hell," he says. "Meeting people [at the museum]was scary, the system was scary, Bill was scary."

Indeed, Reid didn't make it easy on his apprentice. "I worked for Bill for one month before we started talking to each other," Hart, now 55, remembers. "It was so intimidating for me."

Then, after Hart had worked for about a month on the raven at the top of the pole - the feathers, the tail, the face - Reid walked in, took a look, smiled, called in his wife, and they sat down and stared at the pole. "That's when they realized I had some talent," Hart says. "He was just happy as hell."

Finally, the two men began to talk - not just about Haida art, but about European art, theatre, films, books and life. "Bill taught me how to survive in the city. ... He kind of kept an eye out for me and kept me out of the cracks and gave me good advice," Hart says. Reid also helped Hart navigate the foreign territory of the professional art world.

But the relationship was not always smooth. Hart remembers worrying Reid would fire him for having a bad attitude. That didn't happen. "He didn't get rid of me. I really appreciate that because he did hang in there with me and I know it was pretty tough for him a few times," Hart says.

But after about four years, Hart was itching to go out on his own and he made the decision to stop working with Reid. "I couldn't even go near him ... if he got near me, he'd suck in my energy, because he always wanted to do stuff and he needed my hands and my skills [because of the Parkinson's]"

After years of staying away, Hart felt a need to visit his old friend. Reid was very ill by that time. Hart had become an established artist, but he was struggling with his career path. Should he cut corners, engage in mass production and change the way he made his art in order to achieve some financial stability?

There was no way Reid could have known this when Hart knocked on his door. During that visit, Reid brought out example after example of his own work and talked about the pieces. For Hart, the encounter renewed his commitment to making art, not products. "After seeing Bill's stuff again, it put me right on track and I felt happy," Hart says. "So again he helped me without knowing [it]"

Now, Hart is determined to ensure younger generations of Haida artists know about how Reid put their people on the international visual-arts map. He figures the Bill Reid Gallery is one of the best ways to accomplish that.

"I learned a heck of a lot from Bill," Hart says, gesturing toward his partly carved work. "A lot of younger guys won't understand how much work he put into it unless they hear what he did for us, right? ... He did pave the way."

 

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