August 11, 2022


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Who was Bill Reid?

"Joy is a well-made object, equaled only by the joy of making it" - Bill Reid, 1988

Bill Reid (1920-1998) was an acclaimed master goldsmith, carver, sculptor, writer, broadcaster, mentor and community activist. Reid was born in Victoria, BC to a Haida mother and an American father with Scottish German roots, and only began exploring his Haida roots at the age of 23. This journey of discovery lasted a lifetime and shaped Reid's artistic career.

The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art was created in 2008 to honour his legacy and celebrate the diverse indigenous cultures of the Northwest Coast. Bill Reid infused Haida traditions with his own modernist aesthetic to create both exquisitely small as well as monumental work that captured the public's imagination, and introduced a timeless vocabulary to the modern world.

Reid became a pivotal force in building bridges between Indigenous people and other peoples. Through his mother, he was a member of the Raven clan from T'aanuu with the wolf as one of his family crests. Raven is known as a mischievous trickster, who also plays an important part in transforming the world. Many of these traits matched Bill Reid's personality. In 1986, Reid was presented with the Haida name Yaahl Sgwansung, meaning The Only Raven.

Where to See Bill Reid's Work

A Bill Reid Timeline

  • 1920 - 1949
  • 1950 - 1959
  • 1960 - 1979
  • 1980 - 2004
  • 1920
  • Born January 12 in Victoria, BC, the first child of Sophie Gladstone Reid and William Ronald Reid
  • 1939
  • Began work as a radio announcer, first in Kelowna, BC, then in Ontario and Quebec, and later in Vancouver
  • 1943
  • First visit to Haida Gwaii since early childhood
  • 1944
  • Married Mabel "Binkie" van Boyen. Conscripted into the Canadian Army for one year
  • 1948
  • Joined the CBC in Toronto as a radio broadcaster. Studied jewelry at Ryerson Institute of Technology, Toronto

Three Phases of Bill Reid

Dr. Martine J. Reid, who is conducting research for Bill Reid's Catalogue Raisonne, has discussed his career in 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, Montreal, and Vancouver).



During his first phase, at the age of 28 while a CBC broadcaster in Toronto, Reid learned the classic European jewelry trade, hoping one day to create bracelets such as those made by his grandfather, Charles Gladstone or other Haida relatives. Reid, who called himself "a maker of things" rather than an artist, was known to have said that he owed his accomplishments in his wide range of artistic expression to the skills that he had acquired from the jewelry trade.

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.



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.


Beyond Haida

Reid's third phase is marked by his return from London in '69, where he was studying museum collections while learning at the Central School of Design to master another ancient technique: the lost wax. He settled in Montreal for three years where he completed the Milky Way, an intricate gold and diamond necklace with detachable brooch. He also created important 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. After being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, he returned to Vancouver in 1973 where he lived until his death in 1998.

Over the years Reids work moved towards greater complexity and increasingly three-dimensional creations, culminating in a series of gold repousse 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.

BILL REID at the Museum of Anthropology, UBC


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