For many years I taught a university course in Arts Writing and set a matching quiz for the second class: 40 names of famous Canadian artists from all disciplines in one column, and a description of each in the other. Match description to name. You can try your hand at the quiz, yourself.
I’d take home the quizzes, mark them, and discover each year that the average number of correct answers was four out of 40. (The best grade ever was a mature student who herself was a visual artist: she got 29/40). This quiz didn’t count toward students’ grades: it was to make the point that, if you’re going to write about the arts, you need to know the players in the field.
In the next class, we’d take up the quiz and my favourite Weird Teacher Trick was to beg or borrow a $20 (Canadian) bill from one of the students. When we got to Haida artist Bill Reid, I could wave around the piece of currency and pronounce: You see Bill Reid’s art almost every day of your life.
At that time, four of Reid’s work were incorporated into the $20 banknote: I’d been lucky enough to have seen all of them, in my travels.
My particular favourite is The Raven and the First Men, a central installation at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.
The work, nearly three metres high and carved from laminated yellow cedar, features the trickster Raven encouraging humans to emerge into the world. It took two years and many hands to complete.
Reid, born in B.C., had a Scots father and a Haida mother – Haida being a Pacific northwest coast indigenous people. Initially he worked as a broadcaster but then studied jewellery-making. He was entering his third decade of life before he began to explore the legends and imagery of his Haidan heritage, first in jewellery and later in sculptures and paintings.
The Bill Reid Foundation says The Raven and First Men depicts the moment when the Raven saw “an extraordinary clam shell and protruding from it were a number of small human beings. The Raven coaxed them to leave the shell to join him in his wonderful world. Some of the humans were hesitant at first, but they were overcome by curiosity and eventually emerged from the partly open giant clam shell to become the first Haida.”
Each of those human faces expresses a different emotion and story – it’s the kind of work you can circle, over and over, seeing something different each time. That same kind of compelling storytelling, filled with drama and humour, is also present in The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, another monumental work that’s nearly four metres high, 3.5 metres wide and six metres long, which depicts 13 mythological Haidan creatures travelling in a canoe. It was the main image on that $20 Reid-art banknote.
The original plaster carving for the work is displayed in the Grand Hall in the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The bronze casting, given a black patina to resemble argillite rock used in traditional Haidian carvings, was installed in 1991 at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. In 1993, a third rendering of the statue was commissioned by the Vancouver International Airport – another bronze casting, but this time with a green patina to evoke the green jade native to B.C.
Reid had Parkinson’s disease for many years and relied heavily on the labour of other artists to realize his designs, creative labour that often was ill-paid and little-recognized. If you’re interested in all the ins and outs of all the ways Reid angered people, the Canadian Encyclopedia details a long list in an entry titled Reid Controversy.
No wonder Reid was so drawn in his art to the Haidan Raven, whose “appetites include lust, curiosity, and an irrepressible desire to interfere and change things, and to play tricks on the world and its creatures.” It took many more hands than his own to create his monumental and iconic works. Knowing and honouring that does not take away from their power to amuse and inspire.
Main photo of The Raven and First Men by John Lederman.