Sometimes its hard to find new things to see when you’re visiting a beloved city that you’ve been to often. That was Ruth and my problem when we arrived in Vancouver, BC after visiting the Gulf Islands. We managed to find 3 attractions we had not been to. Two of them were sensational. Both the botanical garden at UBC and the Bill Reid Gallery were excellent. The 3rd, the Port of Vancouver Discovery Centre, is not recommended.
The Bill Reid Gallery was a real curiosity. It has been around since 2008, but I have found no mention of it while visiting Vancouver. Travel literature and the dedicated staff of the visitors’ centre at Canada Place did not mention it. Perhaps its 2 current but temporary shows, “Royal Portrait” and “Out of Concealment” and its participation in the Heart of the City Festival have changed that.
This gallery would be easy to miss. Blink and you might pass the anonymous steps up to its entry. We did. Luckily, we persisted and retraced. Bill Reid was a goldsmith, a carver, a cultural activist, a jewelry designer, and much, much more. Born in Victoria, BC to a Haida mother and a Scottish-German father, Bill didn’t begin exploring his First Nations heritage or Haida roots until he was 23. Once he acknowledged them, however, he never looked back and subsequently blended his Haida heritage with a modern aesthetic in his works. He created monumental sculptures of wood and bronze and other works of art that continue to fascinate all communities. I think his best explanation of his embracing both cultures is wisely summed up in this quote by him, “Well, I don’t consider myself Haida or non-Haida or white or non-white. I am a citizen of the West Coast of North America and I have availed myself of all the inheritance I got from all directions.” To me, this is a healthy attitude. His early years were spent designing jewelry like the Milky Way necklace above and selling it on Granville Island. He died in 1998. The Celebration of Bill Reid Totem Pole with his clan raven atop it was made by artist James Hart of red cedar after Reid’s death.
Seeking to build bridges between indigenous cultures and others, Bill Reid went to Haida Gwaii twice to salvage totem poles. Bill Reid embraced his Haida name Yaahl Sgwansung. He was a constructor rather than a de-constructor. One of the most interesting conversations Ruth & I had all week was with a doctor from Williams Lake named Nicole who had also been to Haida Gwaii. We met her in the Bill Reid Gallery, and she did a great job of explaining the difference between acclaimed Canadian artist Emily Carr and Bill Reid. Carr went to native villages to record their decline and he taught himself the art of totem pole making to affirm their continued existence and viability. His art output contained both the Dogfish Woman, a Haida supernatural being he created in black, and red and small wire sculptures as good as anything conceived by Alexander Calder.