Bill Reid created about 1,500 works in his lifetime, bringing Haida art into the mainstream consciousness. However, anyone hoping to see an exhaustive representation of his life's work at Vancouver's new Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art may be disappointed. Still, the gallery and its first exhibition, Bill Reid: Master of Haida Art, contains some treasures.
The show begins with a trip down a long, windowed gallery, looking out onto a courtyard. This is the introduction to Reid's life - and the life of the Haida.
"What we have done here is to create the feeling that you're there on one of these really dramatic Haida journeys," says George MacDonald, director emeritus of the Bill Reid Foundation, who calls the Haida the Vikings of the north Pacific coast.
On the walls of the gallery, opposite the windows, are sails from the Lootaas, a 15-metre cedar war canoe created by Reid, and on the ceiling, Reid's painted paddles. There is also a painstakingly reproduced model of the village of Skidegate on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), as it stood in 1881 - before the missionaries arrived. This is where Reid, who grew up in Victoria, would visit his mother, as he became exposed to his Haida heritage (his father was Scottish-American).
Among the highlights in this part of the show is a tiny tea set Reid made when he was 12 as a birthday present for his sister. The set - a teapot with detachable lid, a cup with two handles and a creamer, all small enough to fit inside a matchbox - was made out of blackboard chalk and painted with black nail polish.
There are three centrepiece works in the gallery's main room, The Michael Audain Great Hall. Most notable is an 8.5-metre bronze frieze, Reid's first big bronze, called Mythic Messengers. It's patterned on argillite pipe drawings done by the Haida that often featured tongues linking different figures and tales of mythology together. A work from the same mould hangs at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que.
Anyone familiar with Reid's work probably knows the iconic sculpture The Raven and the First Men, housed in Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology. The Bill Reid Gallery features an alabaster version of this work that is much smaller in scale than the museum's yellow cedar piece - one of the rare occasions where Reid created a smaller version after sculpting a larger work.
And dominating the room is a tribute pole, carved by Reid's protégé, Jim Hart, specifically for this space.
There is also a strong multimedia component to the gallery and several showcases featuring Reid's jewellery, some of which has never been displayed publicly before.
For representations of Reid's best-known sculptural masterpiece, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, visitors will have to be satisfied with a hologram of the work and a three-dimensional scan that will allow people (especially kids) to manipulate the sculpture and look underneath or inside it. (The original, The Black Canoe, is at the Canadian embassy in Washington and another version, The Jade Canoe, is at the Vancouver International Airport.)
There will also be a showcase displaying the $20 bill, which features The Spirit of Haida Gwaii. "That's a very important part of people's recognition of who Bill Reid is," MacDonald says. "They carry around a little gallery of his work in their pocket."
Reid's widow, Martine, has been working with the Bill Reid Foundation to create this gallery since her husband's death 10 years ago - a dream they discussed when he was still alive. "I don't think Bill thought it was possible, to tell you the truth," she said in an interview this week. "Maybe he was also perhaps too humble to think it might happen."
At 4,000 square feet, the exhibition space in the gallery is hardly vast. Nor is the foundation's permanent collection. Donated mostly by Martine Reid, the collection features just over 140 items (about 120 of which are works done by Reid himself; the others are tribute pieces done by other artists).
It might never have been: Frustrated at efforts to get the museum off the ground, Martine Reid at one point threatened to donate all the works instead to a French institution (she is from France) but ultimately decided against it. "I was hoping not to [do]that. Because this work belongs here [in]B.C. and it belongs to the world to be seen. This is why I gave it to Canada."
The opening show draws largely from the permanent collection, along with loans from some private collectors.
Housed in the former Canadian Craft Museum, tucked up a staircase and off an office building courtyard in downtown Vancouver, the museum is out of the way and will need to fight for exposure. But MacDonald is confident that tourists will make the trip from the nearby hotels, cruise ships and the Vancouver Art Gallery, just a block away.
The gallery needs those visitors. With no government grants (there was some federal seed money years ago), the museum needs to raise about $1-million a year to cover operating expenses. "We're funded primarily by the generosity of people here who knew Bill and who want to support the idea," MacDonald says.
The one thing both MacDonald and Reid stress is that this is not just a museum about Bill Reid. It's about a contemporary movement he helped to reignite. "What we're really commemorating here is that phenomenon of the last 50 years of the rebirth in a sense of Northwest Coast art," MacDonald says.
"[Historically]in some areas it continued on; it didn't die out. But in other areas, including the Haida, it was just an ember glowing. And the ember is now in full flame. And Bill had an awful lot to do with that."
The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, 639 Hornby St., Vancouver, opens on Saturday. Admission is $10 for adults (discounts for students and seniors). billreidgallery.ca.