The jewel in the crown of the Gallery is the permanent exhibition Restoring Enchantment: Gold and Silver Masterworks by Bill Reid, curated by Dr. Martine Reid. Restoring Enchantment features over 40 remarkable works drawn from the Bill Reid Foundation Collection in addition to privately-held masterpieces - many of which have never been publicly displayed.
Art, once the cultural essence of the Haida, survived with Bill Reid with a depth and intensity unrelated to any “revival,” but deriving from primary sources and leading to daring innovations. The Young Family Legacy Gallery is an homage to Bill Reid and, implicitly, to the art of his ancestors who inspired him and of those successors whom he inspired. The exhibit takes the visitor on a journey along his creative path.
The permanent exhibit consists of over one hundred works by Bill Reid, mainly owned by the Bill Reid Foundation, and some borrowed from private collections. Some are as exquisitely huge as the 8.5 m bronze Mythic Messengers frieze created in 1984 to symbolize communication; some are as monumentally small as the minute tea set carved in blackboard chalk by Bill Reid at the age of twelve, displayed here for the first time to the public.
Restoring Enchantment: Gold and Silver Masterworks by Bill Reid features a selection of jewelry works that Reid created over his fifty-year career, which, according to curator Dr. Martine Reid, who is conducting research for Bill Reid’s Catalogue Raisonné, unfolded along three phases: Pre-Haida (1948-1951; the artist lived in Toronto), Haida (1952-1967; the artist was back in Vancouver), and Beyond Haida (1968-1998; the artist lived in London, Montréal, and Vancouver).
Empowered with his new skills, Reid returned to Vancouver to establish himself as a modern jeweler. However, after a trip to Haida Gwaii in 1954 where he saw a pair of deeply carved bracelets engraved by his "genius great-great uncle", Charles Edenshaw, the world was not the same,” to use Reid’s words. These ornaments left an indelible impression on him.
When Reid began his career as a goldsmith, Haida style had lost much of its power due to the demoralizing effects of a century of colonization, disease, and culturally repressive Canadian laws. The vital essence of Haida style was no longer expressed. Reid searched early ethnographic publications and exhibitions in museum collections for exceptionally strong works executed by anonymous nineteenth century masters. He immersed himself in traditional Haida art, trying to understand the logic behind the form, a goal he reached at the end of his second creative phase.
Nearly half of Reid’s career was spent at his workbench, “walking forward into the past,” making objects of adornment, which, in a not-too-distant Haida past, were themselves extensions of tattoo designs: crests figures and guardian spirits carved in the skin, projecting identity and spiritual connections among Haida people.
“Deeply carved” is an aesthetic judgment. The Haida language has no general word for “art,” and “deeply carved” or naagwig’idaa in Haida, just means “well made,” a quality Reid always strived to achieve. “Joy is the well-made object,” he would say later.
In the light of recent scholarly works, deep carving can be interpreted as one of the “technologies of enchantment,” a way of looking at art objects as agents of an ideology affecting the form of social relations. Haida society was competitive, and aesthetic principles spoke not just of beauty but also of power, conviction and efficiency.
During the colonial era Haida style had lost most of its vitality and convincing power of expression. Haida creations were shallowly engraved showing weak designs without much potency. They speak of a demoralized cultural world. The identity of the people was deeply wounded, almost erased, and the memory of the life force embedded in the arts was only faintly expressed.
When Bill, the jeweler, started his second phase, he immersed himself into traditional Haida art. He began by making personal objects of adornment, adaptations from old crest and tattoo designs or identity symbols, some of which had originally been drawn by Charles Edenshaw, his great-great-uncle. In the recent Haida past, tattoo designs were strong symbolic statements about who their wearers were as individuals and as social entities.
Tattoos manifested identity and spiritual connections through crest figures and guardian spirits that were carved in the skin, and deeply carved in the consciousness of the beholder, and the viewer. Tattooing was the art of empowering the body, soon to be replaced by jewelry. Haida objects and designs mediated, embodied and transmitted status. As “Objects of Bright Pride”, to quote Bill Reid, they enabled a richer understanding of indigenous notions of power and the empowerment of material forms. Bill’s pieces of adornment were soon going to play the same role in contemporary Haida society; bringing back old memories that had been repressed.
There he created critical works, among them the iconic boxwood Raven and the First Men, and several three-dimensional gold boxes inspired by Haida mythology. He also began his multiple edition-pieces. There he was also diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He returned to Vancouver in 1973 where he lived until his death in 1998.
The Dogfish Woman
One of the most powerful and enigmatic creatures of Haida mythology is the elusive Dogfish Woman, a shaman deriving her power from the Dogfish of the Shark family. In her mythic transformation, her nose has become a beak that curves into her mouth, and her lower lip carries the labret worn by aristocratic Haida women. The story of how she became a shaman of extraordinary power is now lost. But we know that her power came from the spirit of the Dogfish, who was her familiar.
Reid’s boxwood transformation pendant Dogfish Woman masterfully reenacts the concept of transformation in which the Dogfish Woman and her mythical alter-ego occupy the same space at the same time.
The contrast between the very austere look of the Dogfish and the magical beauty of the Dogfish Woman is tempered by the artist’s sense of humour. Reid delighted in creating a series of little human beings for the fish’s vertebrae.
Over the years Reid’s work moved towards greater complexity and increasingly three-dimensional creations, culminating in a series of gold repoussé bracelets and three-dimensional hollowware. His visionary skills coupled with his mastery of the techniques enabled him to create powerful, three-dimensional jewelry works that were indeed deeply carved.
Reid's quest for understanding the essence and the roots of a unique art form led him to discover his own "Haidaness" and, in the process, restored much of the dynamic power, magic, and possibility to the art. In doing so he became the catalyst to empower a whole Nation.
By Dr. Martine J. Reid, 2008, Director, Content and Research, Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art.