A good read on Bill Reid

I find it hard to reveal my interest in First Nations art without feeling a defensive urge to prevaricate. A person of my taste and sophistication, I want to say, certainly doesn’t mean Eskimo-kitsch carvings, knock-off Morrisseau greeting cards, and Haida-print bookmarks.

Except that, in a way, I mean exactly those things. The fascination of these traditions lies largely in how they’ve worked their way into every corner of our field of view. Unlike any other art made in Canada, besides Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven, these are the graphic styles Canadians actually choose to live with, which has to count for something.

So anything that helps us understand what we’re looking at when First Nations art and design are in front of us, as they so often are, deserves notice. To that end, I commend to you a lively, insightful essay by Norbert Ruebsaat, in the current issue of the Literary Review of Canada, on a new collection of writings by Bill Reid, the late sculptor who led the renaissance in Northwest Coast art.

Ruebsaat leads us on an illuminating tour of Reid’s life story, noting especially the fact that the artist grew up in a white middle-class milieu, and didn’t begin exploring the artistic heritage of his Haida mother until he was in his twenties. Coming at it from the outside, Reid was conscious that the tradition he chose to immerse himself in belonged to a previous time. Ruebsaat includes this telling quotation from him:

To consider the art of the Northwest Coast in anything but a most subjective way would be for me an almost impossible exercise. For two decades now, I have lived intimately with the strange and beautiful beasts and heroes of Haida mythology and learned to know them as part of myself—and through their powerful realizations in the high art of the Indian past, perhaps to know something of the people who at one time shared this intimacy.

There’s something in this that grants us all permission to try to get inside what can still seem, for all its familiarity, like rather exotic art. Of course we’re not going to go anywhere near as deep as Reid did. But apart from being an extraordinarily gifted and disciplined artist, it’s worth remembering that he wasn’t so different from us—he was a twentieth-century man. Our finding his vision accessible isn’t all that strange. There’s nothing to stop us from hoping to feel a bit of what he felt.

The book, by the way, is called Solitary Raven: The Essential Writings of Bill Reid. It’s edited by Robert Bringhurst, the British Columbia poet whose translations of Haida myths are a treasure.