Bill Reid: reluctant figurehead

Some days, Bill Reid’s Parkinson’s is so bad he can’t get anything done. This cool November day in 1984 is one of his good days. I pick him up at his apartment on Point Grey Road and drive him to his studio on Granville Island, where he shows me his current work. “There are so many things I have to do, and so many people are after me for this and that, that I decided to hell with all of them, I’ll make a frog.” And he picks up the chisel that carver George Rammell made for him and starts to chip-chip-chip away at the big cedar block, his grip firm and his hands steady, freed for the moment from his crippling illness and looking like the most fulfilled man in the world.

He’s the figurehead these days for the so-called renaissance of Coast Indian art, but he’s a reluctant figure-head at best. He feels he wears too many hats, critic, instigator, propagandist, when what he wants most of all is to make things. He’s scathing in private about the opportunists who have flocked to the aboriginal-art bandwagon, exploiting the market that he and Robert Davidson largely created, but he’s reluctant to condemn them. They’re his people, after all (well, partly, at least). In any case, he says, “it has permitted a lot of fellows who’d otherwise be working at menial jobs to earn money making things they can be proud of.”

As far as his own work is concerned, “I’d like to dump a lot of it in some appropriate part of the ocean. On the other hand, there are some pieces that I couldn’t have done anything comparable to in any other form. I think the dialogue between me as an urban 20th-century product of this particular age and this 19th-century thing has produced some quite remarkable pieces. What they symbolize or what their significance is I don’t know. They’re just nice things, and that’s all they have to be.”

*

A year or so later, I fly with him to Haida Gwaii (still known then as the Queen Charlotte Islands) for the ceremonial first cut in the carving of a 50-foot canoe, the first full-sized ocean-going vessel to be carved on the Pacific Coast for 60 or 70 years. Children play on the beach. Dogs fight. The fragrance of barbecued salmon fills the air. The massive red cedar trunk that they hauled out of the forest lies trimmed and straight in the sun. The whole village and many neighbouring chiefs are gathered to witness the event. The band elders are wearing their traditional Haida button blankets.

A small canoe rounds a distant point and slides slowly closer across the glinting silver sea, bringing members of the team that will undertake, under Bill’s direction, the carving. As the vessel breasts the beach, carver Gary Edenshaw, a member of another famous carving family, leaps ashore and, accompanied by drumming and chanting, runs to the carving area. He is bearing the ceremonial adze, and he hands it to Bill.

Bill, despite his frailty, makes the ceremonial first incision. He is followed by the waiting chiefs, and by Edgar Kaiser Jr., chairman of the Bank of B.C, which is bankrolling the project as its contribution to the opening ceremonies of Vancouver’s Expo 86 (Kaiser, a dapper, sandy-haired dynamo, has flown Bill and me here in his private jet). The cut complete, the ceremony turns into a Haida feast, with traditional dances and songs and much laughter and congratulation.

Bill is looked on these days as the person who had been the salvation of the Haida culture—“he tended and revived a flame that was close to dying,” is how Claude Lévi-Strauss puts it—but he remains a reluctant and self-deprecating saviour. This morning, as we waited for a launch to cross the channel from Sandspit, he took my notebook and drew the shapes that make up the bones of Haida form-line: they turn out to be cross-sections of the canoe, seen from various perspectives. “They used what they knew,” he said.

*

Another year later, Bill receives the $100,000 Royal Bank award, a prize for Canadians who have made “an important contribution to human welfare and the common good.” Robert Davidson ropes the 200-strong black-tie gathering into a unison version of the Lyell Islanders’ stop-the-logging paddle song, but the meat lies in the words of the witty and modest Bill.

He talks about the coming-together of cultures that freed him to use European techniques to extend the possibilities of Haida design—a coming-together, he suggests, that “perhaps points the way for our path out of the dilemma we’re in as people.” He asks his predominantly white audience to imagine how they would feel if their home were overtaken by well-meaning strangers with the power to transform what they had previously felt were “satisfactory lives.”

This, he says, is what lies behind the talk about land claims and aboriginal rights—“they are looking for a return to the time when they were self-sufficient individuals who knew who they were and could take their position in the general pattern of mankind.” His art gives them dignity. His words give them hope.

*

By the early spring of 1998, Bill is dead. We hold his memorial gathering/celebration in the Great Hall at the B.C. Museum of Anthropology, where much of his choicest work is housed (Bill was the only person in the world with 24-hour access to the museum: he used to take people in there at night and show them those great totem poles by flashlight).

It lasts eight hours, a magical, magisterially uplifting event: more than 50 speakers, luminaries from many miles around and lots of lesser lights but shining spirits, friends and colleagues of Bill. His ashes sit in ceremonial splendour under a crimson and blue button blanket in a carved chest in a Haida canoe that is carried in by 14 of his closest associates, all the carvers and chiefs in their full regalia, and placed in a position of high honour by the big, glass wall overlooking Cornelia Oberlander and Arthur Erickson’s evocation of a Haida village shoreline.

The event has the sense of something like a state funeral, except that what is happening here comes from a tradition older than the colonizers’ ceremonies. It unwinds at its own speed, layering dance, song, story into a dense weave of memory and influence as the light turns to night. People just go on making speeches and dancing until there is nothing left to say. Eight hours, and we are totally absorbed: we listen to everyone. And at the end, a traditional feast of bannock and salmon smoked over an alder pit. I’ve never seen anyone sent off with such love and dignity (and laughter and tears).

Here’s what I said:

About 15 years ago my wife Susan and I dropped in on Bill and Martine at their apartment on Point Grey. I remember how taken we were by a cedar carving of a frog. It was crouched beside his chair, belly to the floor, every green, gleaming, emaciated inch of it tensed, poised, ready to leap. Its big, red eyeballs bulged grotesquely from their sockets. The lungs of its lean back pushed pure take-off energy down to its skinny, muscled flanks. Its beaky tongue prodded out in a perpetual statement of menace and dismay. This was Phyllidula, the shape of frogs to come. Doris Shadbolt says that even Bill had nightmares about it.

            What impressed me about that frog was how much it said about Bill. It spoke, for one thing, about his instinctive creativity, that talent he had for seeing and expressing the things the rest of us can merely intuit, his talent for finding the significant and the lasting in the everyday. A frog isn’t conventionally beautiful, but Bill had transformed it. Because of course a frog speaks to us all about transformation. It becomes itself from something quite other, a tadpole, and is blessed, because of that, with the ability to transform itself again: the frog prince, saved by a kiss, transformed by someone willing to give it attention.

            It spoke, too, about Bill’s innate vitality, the vitality that lay beneath the slowness the Parkinson’s forced on him. Every line of this frog suggested a poised readiness to take flight: the moment of pounce, caught for eternity. And it spoke, as well, about Bill’s ability to take an established artistic tradition and make of it something new. Elements of the design certainly echoed elements of traditional Haida carving, yet it was also the shape of carving to come: bridging traditions in its own act of transformation.

            When I talk about transformation of this kind I think about Bill in the same terms as I think about the great modern dance choreographer Martha Graham. Part of that has to do with the person each of them was. Anyone foolish enough to imagine that illness and age had slowed their mental processes was in for a rude awakening. Behind those seemingly innocent and elderly facades some kind of pretty mischief was always brewing: a delighted playfulness with language and ideas. Neither took any prisoners when it came to intellectual exchange.

            But there was something else as well: a need to break barriers, to go where no one else had gone. Both transformed their art in a manner that will long outlast them. Bill’s frog—the shape of frogs to come—is just one example. Out of something solid and enduring, out of wood or metal, out of materials we can touch, he gave us the intangible expression of the transcendent, transforming life-spirit. Few of us are given the privilege of leaving the world so much to treasure.

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