This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 18, 1999. Partner content is not updated.She sits in the kitchen of her small second-storey apartment in Vancouver's Kitsilano area. While a kettle boils lightly on the stove, the woman places a series of drawings on the table. It is, she says, the first time she has shown the sketches to a stranger.
She sits in the kitchen of her small second-storey apartment in Vancouver's Kitsilano area. While a kettle boils lightly on the stove, the woman places a series of drawings on the table. It is, she says, the first time she has shown the sketches to a stranger. They are stunningly erotic, among the last works by HAIDA artist Bill REID - who died last year at 78, after a 30-year battle with the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease. Setting the drawings down, the woman, who had a long-standing affair with Reid while he was married to his third and last wife, Martine, says she admires "the playfulness and liveliness of the lines." Yet what stands out is the graphic nature of the compositions, which combine Haida iconography with another of Reid's obsessions: sex. Described by one ex-girlfriend as a "compulsive womanizer - it was almost like his hobby," Reid depicted a killer whale making love to a woman in one drawing. In another, he rendered a penis as a totem pole. "Bill was excited by the forbidden, the dark side of the light," says the woman who owns the sketches - and, in fact, posed for one that was rendered on a deerskin drum. "He liked to shine in public - but he liked the shadows, too."
That side of the master goldsmith and Haida carver is well-known among some members of Canada's art world. To the public, Reid projected a benign and grandfatherly image. He was viewed as a mythic figure, an artistic genius and old-fashioned charmer with a mind at once devilishly witty and deeply scholarly. But others who knew him well are less flattering. Described variously by associates as "a charming bastard" and "a pathological egomaniac," Reid was capable of ruthlessly turning on friends - many of whom helped advance his career. And his formidable artistic success had a dark side as well.
By the late 1970s, Reid, who was part Haida, had become a cultural icon in British Columbia, a province on the front lines of a brewing battle between Indian rights and white entitlement. At the time, his reputation was, for the most part, based on beautifully executed, finely detailed gold and silver jewelry. But the height of his fame was still to come - through a series of grandiose sculptures based on Haida mythology, and produced between 1980 and the early 1990s. Reid, who ran his business through his own company, William Reid Ltd., was never a prolific artist. Nevertheless, even as his Parkinson's disease intensified over that time, he produced an astounding body of work: five major commissions, as well as many smaller pieces in silver, gold, wood and bronze - not to mention other items, such as prints, painted drums and paddles.
How did he do it? Though Reid was still capable of drawing, designing and supervising, almost everything was carved, painted or fabricated to a significant degree by other artists and assistants. "I guess if anyone had really thought about it, they would have known he couldn't have done this all himself," says Haida carver Jim Hart, whose elegant carving became the signature for some of Reid's best-known work. "That's the worst-kept secret in the business - who did what for Bill," adds Don Yeomans, another noted Haida carver who worked for Reid.
Few outside the tightly knit Vancouver art scene knew that Reid's Parkinson's disease had reached such an advanced state that he was often incapable of working. In her definitive study of the artist, published in 1986 and revised in 1998, respected Vancouver art historian Doris Shadbolt did note that because of illness, Reid was forced to rely on others, and she characterized the larger commissions as "joint efforts under his control." But even many of those in the know did not realize the extent of his dependence on Haida as well as white artists. In fact, those who produced his work joke that they were his "slaves." But the humour hides deep resentment: in more than 30 interviews with those who produced Reid's work, a pattern of bitter complaint emerges.
Some acknowledge that without Reid's power and connections with the media, galleries and museums, there would have been no work for other carvers. Yeomans, for one, expresses gratitude for the opportunity to have worked with Reid - and for all Reid did for the cause of Haida art. But many artists say they felt used, were badly paid and got little credit for their labour. In the end, the situation had deteriorated to the point that Shadbolt, the widow of the famous West Coast painter Jack Shadbolt, calls Reid's last major exhibition, in 1992, an artistic "fraud."
The use of other artists and assistants by no means diminishes the grandeur of Reid's best-known work. Those brought in to produce his pieces were usually the best in the business - even though they had to park their egos behind the Reid signature. It will be up to the art world, though, to assess the impact of the practice on the issues of authorship and value - as well as its ongoing impact on other native artists. "How valid is it to go into the past when the same thing goes on today?" Yeomans asks. "What I see in our craft is a bastardization that has evolved from people who have tried to use Bill's method of operation as a template for their career. A lot of young people now think the secret to success is who you can hire, as opposed to what you can do."
Bill Reid was born in 1920. His father was an American of Scottish and German descent; his mother was a Haida from Skidegate in the Queen Charlotte Islands who hid her native heritage from Reid until he was a teenager. Raised mostly in Victoria where his mother worked as a seamstress, Reid was brought up to be the perfect English gentleman. He also possessed a mesmerizing voice, which, combined with his command of the language, led him initially to a career as a broadcaster. But at 23, while working for a small Vancouver radio station, Reid took his first trip to the Queen Charlottes. There, he watched his grandfather, Charles Gladstone, carve - a glimpse into the culture of his mother's people that would open a new chapter in his life.
In 1945, Reid moved east, ending up in Toronto three years later where he studied jewelry-making at what was then the Ryerson Institute of Technology while working as a CBC broadcaster. In 1952, married to his first wife and with a child, Reid returned to Vancouver. There, he started making jewelry, and developing contacts among University of British Columbia anthropologists. In 1957, they asked him to help them salvage rotting totem poles from the Queen Charlotte Islands - a project that remains controversial among some natives to this day. As his personal reputation grew, Reid went on to help carve a Totem Park at the university.
He had never lived in the Queen Charlotte Islands and learned almost everything about Haida culture from white texts. But he successfully managed to spin Haida history for his own purposes - even as he helped further the native cause. In the process, he received credit for reviving a dying art form - overshadowing the many carvers in the Queen Charlottes who had kept the flame alive. And his public criticism of the Haida often rankled. In 1986, during the building of Lootas, a 15-m war canoe for display at Expo 86, Vancouver's world fair, Reid told a reporter that the Indians were so incompetent they needed to be told "what end of a hammer to use." Further, he claimed they were undisciplined and drank too much. The recently elected president of the Haida Nation, whose name is Guujaaw and who carved on various Reid projects, told Maclean's that Reid was a hero to many in the Queen Charlottes for lending his prominent name to Haida land-claim issues and bringing Haida art to international attention. As for the art, he said, "we were basically tools, but any means to an end is legitimate - I'm glad to have been a part of it." But, he added, "Reid seemed to think that by putting our people down he would elevate himself."
Reid's critical comments about the Haida also struck some people as wildly hypocritical. Sharon Hitchcock, a Haida artist from the Queen Charlottes, was mainly responsible for designing and drawing the imposing killer whale design on the bow and stern of the Lootas. That is never mentioned anywhere in literature dealing with Reid's work. Neither is it noted that, according to Hitchcock, Reid himself was drunk many nights while overseeing the painting of the canoe. At 5 p.m. sharp, she says, he would put down his tools and send her to the liquor store for a large bottle of rum - which he would then consume in the rented A-frame house where he lived at the time. "He tried to get me to stay in the A-frame," Hitchcock recalls. "But I couldn't handle his drinking."
In the end, Reid angered Queen Charlotte carvers so much that none would work for him on his final masterpiece, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (also known as The Black Canoe). The five-ton bronze sculpture, overflowing with mythological creatures, was based on a small black argillite "spirit canoe" Reid studied at the Vancouver Museum, and was unveiled in 1991 at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. In 1993, the Vancouver airport paid $3 million for a copy, The Jade Canoe - the highest price ever for a Canadian work of art. Ironically, Reid's main contribution to the Spirit project was as designer and supervisor. The final carving was done mostly by white artisans.
In 1980, Haida artist Jim Hart was 27 and unfamiliar with city ways when he first arrived in Vancouver from the Queen Charlottes. When his plane touched down at Vancouver airport, it seemed there were more people in the baggage claim area than in his entire home town of Masset. A slim but powerful carver with a long black ponytail, Hart soon got word that Reid wanted him to work for him. Little did he know that his first job would involve carving the finishing details - known as "surfacing" or putting "the skin on the bird," as one artist describes it. At $10 an hour, Reid wanted him to surface his masterful creation, the 2.4-m-high yellow cedar Raven and the First Men. Little did anyone else know that for the next four years, Hart's elegant and meticulous carving would give life to some of Reid's best-known work. George Rammell, the white Vancouver sculptor whose energy and artistic intelligence helped Reid realize the last 13 projects of his career, refers to it as the "tension on the surface - Jim was a master at that." And, he adds, "Bill often talked about that tension. He didn't have the skills to do that at that point. He never did, actually - he wasn't a surfacer like Jim, he was an intellectual anthropologist, not a craft-based artist."
Based on an original eight-centimetre boxwood carving done by Reid in 1970, The Raven and the First Men is a tourist favourite that is the centrepiece at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology. When it was finished, it elevated Reid's reputation from a brilliant Haida goldsmith to master sculptor and brought him a far broader audience. But with his Parkinson's getting more severe, Reid needed help. "Bill was great at using experts," says Rammell. "He didn't hire you because of your chisel, he hired you for your soul, your whole energy. He expected us to dig him out of the fire. Some artists use clay - Bill used people."
To get Raven off the ground, Reid desperately needed his old friend and well-known Vancouver sculptor George Norris to sign on. At first, Norris was very reluctant to get involved with a Haida project. But Reid beseeched him. "Bill was the most charming man imaginable when he wanted to be," says one artist friend. "He had men and women dancing around him." Added the non-native Norris, in a recent interview: "He had a way of drawing people into his web." Using European techniques and spatial geometry, Norris scaled Raven up to its massive size and roughed it out for finishing. When Reid needed someone to carve the smaller nude figures that seem to be hatching from the clamshell in the sculpture, he hired Rammell. Haida carvers Guujaaw and Reg Davidson were brought in to work as well, but Guujaaw quit because of the involvement of white artists. In the case of Raven, the contributions of others are openly acknowledged on a sign in the Museum of Anthropology. But Norris says that for extended periods of time, even months, Reid never showed up at the two-year-long project: "I left him a note once, and never got an answer."
Rammell recalls that even in the latter stages, weeks would go by with Reid absent. "Bill used to say these projects were on automatic pilot," he recalls. "Yeah - because we were doing them." At times, Reid would arrive in a grey Rolls-Royce owned by a friend, take out his lumber crayon to mark changes, or use a hook knife to show how he wanted a figure carved. At maximum, Reid might put in three hours at a time, especially when camera crews documenting the process were around or the piece was nearing completion. "There were a lot of times Bill wasn't there," says Rammell. "He was still calling the shots. But he wasn't making the cuts."
When Hart began the critical and laborious work of surfacing the sculpture, Reid gave him this terse advice: "Just finish it, get her done." That was the last he heard from Reid for a month. In all, Hart worked six months and was paid $10 an hour to finish the sculpture. But it wasn't the wages that irked him. His disappointment came when he watched a film on the making of the sculpture and realized there wasn't a single frame of him. When he later asked Museum of Anthropology staff for a still photo of his work, he was told none could be found. "Eventually I got one," says Hart. "That proved I was there."
For Hart, it was a brutal lesson in the politics of the art world and how Reid used the media - particularly film and television - to magnify his influence. As a former CBC broadcaster, Reid had wide connections that served him well. "Bill didn't waste his energy," says Rammell. "He was feeding the machine. He understood that a lot of his fame had to do with television." In some of the productions documenting his work, Reid either wrote and narrated the script or was a co-producer, partly financing the projects or keeping the rights to final script approval. (Once, when Reid was unhappy about a documentary, he even asked another filmmaker to remake it.) Hart, now 47 and one of the superstars of Haida art, says he learned a huge lesson from Reid - and it had nothing to do with carving. "I learned a lot about how the game was played from Bill," he says. "They took lots of shots of me, but didn't put me in the film. I'm sure Bill had a lot to do with that, just knowing how he operates."
After the project, Norris never worked with Reid again; their friendship, which dated back to the 1950s, was effectively over. Today, he will only hint at what happened, saying: "I resent being thought of as one of Bill's hired hands. The last thing I want to be remembered for is being somebody else's slave." But many in the art community know of Norris's importance to the project - and how Reid wounded him for his trouble. "George Norris did the work, and when it was finished Bill went out and actively tried to destroy his reputation, saying he was incompetent and hard to work with," says Jeffrey Miller, the talented goldsmith who produced some of Reid's jewelry pieces. "Bill did it so Raven would be thought of as his piece entirely. Bill couldn't have had the spotlight if people had known how responsible George was for that sculpture."
Not just the spotlight. In the world of Bill Reid Ltd., the financial stakes were also high. In 1982, Vancouver's Equinox Gallery sold a gold version of the intricately patterned Dogfish Transformation Pendant, originally rendered in boxwood, to a local collector for around $100,000. Friends say Reid was deliriously happy with the high price. But although Reid had started the boxwood version, he made mistakes due to his illness and had to hand the work over to Hart, who says he salvaged it. Rammell recalls seeing the original in its sorry form, then the finished version, and being "amazed at how it was done - it was impeccable. Bill said he did it - and I still don't believe it. It looked like something Jim would have done. Some of the detail was too fine - Jim had the skills to do that."
Miller concurs. He says: "Most of the things Bill did at this time were a mess." Miller saw the boxwood carving at the beginning stages, roughed out with crude shapes. "Then, Bill went to the Charlottes where Jim Hart was and he came back with a masterpiece," said Miller. "It was Bill's vision and he directed the carving, but he couldn't do it with his own hands." Weeks later, Reid asked Miller to help him make a copy in gold. But Miller's participation has never been noted. Other spinoffs of the piece, meanwhile, were made under Reid's auspices; one was advertised for sale by Vancouver's Buschlen Mowatt Gallery in 1994 for $200,000.
Andy Sylvester, co-owner of the Equinox Gallery, says he "never had any reason to doubt that the Transformation pendant was anything other than Reid's." He told Maclean's he was "shocked" over the involvement of others, adding, "This is a revelation." Miller, meanwhile, recalls how the highly medicated Reid battled to keep working on the piece even though his tremorous hands were incapable of engraving. "It was the worst thing that could have happened to someone so dedicated to fine detail work," he says. "But he had tremendous dignity. When he had messed something up because he had lost control, he would leave me a note saying, 'Sorry about this screw-up. I kind of fell apart last night.' I could have produced five of those pieces in the time it took us to produce one. It was excruciating."
Martine Reid acknowledges that, by the 1980s, her husband "was probably not very capable of carving hard metals." He could, she said in an interview, carve wax - from which moulds were made for casting pieces of jewelry - and do repoussé work: shaping or ornamenting metal by hammering on the back. In the case of the boxwood Dogfish Transformation Pendant, which she now owns, she insists the work is Reid's: "Jim Hart never touched that - he must be thinking of something else." And even when others did the work, she says, the pieces are Reid's because "the designs are Bill's. No piece has been allowed on the market without Bill's standard of craftsmanship being accepted by him." Vancouver goldsmith Chang Sun, who acknowledges that he did many pieces for Reid, also says that, ultimately, the authorship of those works remains Reid's. "I'm just the hands," says Sun, who often engraved Reid's signature, from a stencil, onto the pieces he worked on. Everything was, Sun adds, "Reid's design. I don't think it's mine."
All that may be news to collectors who think that, for a substantial investment, they are buying, along with an artist's signature, some hands-on involvement. "Buyer beware," says Toronto art dealer Olga Korper. She says she accepts the notion that "the concept and the idea and the vision is authorship - I do not think it's necessary for the artist to be the craftsman." But Korper adds that there are "grey areas - if a piece was made totally by a studio assistant and I found out, I might not want to buy that piece, no matter how much the artist supervised it." Being led to believe that an artist personally created a piece when in fact it was carved by someone else is also a grey area. In that case, noted Korper, the matter could end up in court - "if you were led to believe it was a Bill Reid by Bill Reid's hand."
Hart also says he salvaged another valuable Reid boxwood carving: a 10-cm killer whale. Again, Reid started the original. But his increasing hand tremors, according to Hart, made it "impossible." Hart adds: "I could see the hint of what he was heading for, but it was pretty rough. There was enough wood left to do stuff with it - so I just took it over and did it for him." (Reid's physical contribution consisted of the waves at the base of the statue.) It was the prototype for the 5.4-m bronze killer whale sculpture, actually made by Rammell and installed at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1984. Neither Rammell's nor Hart's name appears anywhere on the sculpture - a small plaque features only Reid's name. And to this day, the Vancouver Aquarium Web site credits Reid with having "sculpted" the work.
In the early days, Hart was happy for the work from Reid and still praises him for championing the Haida people and their art. Still, he soon grew tired of being "kept in the back-room" and "treated as a pair of hands." But Reid made it hard for Hart to leave. At one point, Reid bought Hart a Toyota Land Cruiser and had him work off the cost. Reid offered a similar deal to Clayton Gladstone, another Haida carver, in the late 1980s: some believe it was Reid's way of keeping his Haida workers dependent once they reached the city.
Others say they were either underpaid or not paid at all. Rick Adkins, a Haida artist who lives in a run-down hotel on Vancouver's downtown Eastside, admits he was flattered when Reid gave him a silver bear box to engrave around 1986. Reid had tried engraving it himself but, according to Adkins, "it was a mess. He didn't totally destroy it, but it was a lot of work to clean it up." Still, that was easy labour compared with trying to collect from Reid. "I accepted an outrageously low amount of money for the piece," says Adkins (the box eventually won the Saidye Bronfman Award, under Reid's name, for excellence in the crafts and was exhibited at the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que.). "But I was too intimidated to haggle and I was scared. He was already pretty old and decrepit and I didn't want to go down in history as the guy who killed Bill Reid. But he hated handing out money."
B.C. native artist Ben Houstie had similar problems. In 1989, Reid asked him to paint 36 paddles for him at $20 an hour. After that, Reid asked Houstie, a member of the Kwakiutl band, to paint 25 deerskin drums based on Reid designs. In the early 1990s, the Reid drums, also produced by two other artists, were a hot-selling item for which collectors were willing to pay between $10,000 and $20,000 apiece. Houstie started painting the drums for $500 each. It was a laborious process that meant taking Reid's rough designs, reworking them and then doing the actual painting. But Houstie was fast and good: he could turn out a drum in about five hours. When Houstie learned that one of Reid's first drums sold for $20,000, he asked Reid for a $250 raise. "He fired me," says Houstie, who now lives in a squalid commune in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey and supports himself and his teenage son by selling prints and doing odd painting jobs. Two weeks later, Reid rehired Houstie - with his raise - after he could find no one else.
How did Reid manage to perpetuate the image that he was the sole creator of his works? People in the art world say that once art becomes an industry and the art dealers and market forces come into play, myth-building begins and the machine takes over. Throughout history, artists have run huge studios with many assistants. Rodin and Picasso, for example, had people working for them. Art historians are now trying to untangle exactly who did what: real authorship will ultimately determine the value of many works.
Although the practice was far less common in North America, American sculptor Wade Saunders in 1993 shed some light on the issue in Art in America magazine. He said the practice of using assistants, particularly in art centres like New York City, has been increasing. But pressure to keep it quiet comes from gallery owners and art dealers who are afraid prices may fall. In 1982, when Saunders put on a show of his work in New York, he made a prominent sign listing his assistants' names and what jobs they performed. His dealer told him to remove the sign - or reduce it to a mere list of names.
Hart and others remember how Reid would create the illusion of control when people came to watch him work. "He'd show off for them," Hart says. "He'd grab a tool and start jimmying around, pile right in there and destroy an area. Then we'd clean it up. He was so strong to carry on under all that torment, but he'd end up giving the best he could, cutting his fingers or making some kind of mess of himself and also making a mess of some part of the work. But that was the game. It was showmanship: showing people he was the master, that it was his work and his project."
During the making of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, it was a running joke with workers on the project: if Reid came to the studio, he'd be followed shortly by his entourage, a constant stream of collectors, dignitaries, museum directors and gallery owners. (One day, architect Arthur Erickson - who designed the Canadian Embassy in Washington and set his old friend Reid up for the commission for the sculpture - brought American actress Shirley MacLaine to the studio to see it being made.) Usually, Reid would start giving orders to the workers in front of the guests, proclaiming in his deep, sonorous voice: "Ah, they just don't get it. They just can't do it." Then he would walk away. "We had to put up with this stuff," says Rammell, "and I found it humiliating."
In 1985, Reid hired Vancouver impresario Chris Wootten as a project supervisor. One of Wootten's jobs was to find money to fund Reid's work. First, he secured $350,000 from the now-defunct Bank of British Columbia for Reid to produce Lootas. With some of that money, Wootten made a film, documenting the process. Wootten freely acknowledges that Rammell was the only reason Reid was able to get his major commissions done. "He couldn't do it himself - he wasn't capable," says Wootten. "But the public didn't know. It was sort of like FDR [former U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt]. People didn't know he had polio. Bill didn't want people to know how ill he was. Part of it was pride and part was marketing, but more pride than anything else. It wasn't a conspiracy, but there was a recognition that letting people know wasn't such a good idea."
Wootten says Reid would make a superhuman effort to appear healthy for public appearances or the filming of his work. But that meant his handlers and assistants - a constantly changing group - often spent as much time taking care of his physical needs as they did managing projects or producing art. Until Reid got full-time nursing in 1992, there was no one to make sure he took his medication every three hours (the medication itself is known to cause mood swings and disorientation). "It was chaos," says Rammell, who would go to pick Reid up in the morning and often find the six-foot, three-inch artist lying on the hardwood living-room floor. And the struggle took its toll. "He would perform publicly in ways you didn't think he was capable," says Wootten. "I saw that so many times. You would have to force him to the point of getting his energy up - then he would pay for it for days afterward."
Despite Reid's immense success, there was an ever-greater need for money to support an increasingly lavish lifestyle. But friends say that up until the mid-1970s, Reid endured the life of a struggling artist, moving constantly, often living with fellow artists who would receive Reid jewelry instead of rent. More than one friend has remarked that Reid was "terrible with money." He never seemed to have cash or a credit card when he went for lunch with others. When Guujaaw once took him on a shopping trip to buy pants and shirts, he himself had to pay for the clothing out of his own pocket. After his 1981 marriage to Martine, Reid's lifestyle changed. As he once told carver James Watt: "If it wasn't for Martine, I'd be living out of a suitcase." With fame came luxury: the Reids owned matching his-and-hers condominiums on Vancouver's prestigious ocean drive, Point Grey Road, and had a summer home on Thetis Island, just east of Vancouver Island. They took trips to Europe each year, owning an apartment in Paris that was sometimes rented out to friends. Reid constantly told associates and friends he was in trouble with "the men in grey suits": Revenue Canada. In 1992 - before receiving $3 million from the sale of The Jade Canoe - he moved himself and his business into two wooden townhouses he rented on the Musqueam Reserve in Vancouver. There, as a native, he didn't have to pay income tax. To this day, his company, now solely owned by his widow, enjoys tax-free status.
Turnover was the key in keeping the funds rolling in - there was, at any given time, a lot of work in progress. Also among Wootten's responsibilities was tracking pieces Reid had jobbed out. On July 29, 1986, according to documents obtained by Maclean's, Wootten wrote Grace Studio Ltd. - which produced small works for Reid in the 1970s and '80s - to inquire about the following items that were being made: a silver bear bowl, spoons, gold and silver 10-cm whales, bear door knobs and an ivory box. Regarding the production of a gold and silver necklace, Wootten wrote: "Bill needs to find someone to do it." Grace Studio Ltd. also made rings, pendants and brooches for Reid. A frog necklace it made for $10,800 in 1988 was advertised for sale four years later for $100,000. (The studio's relationship with Reid ended when owner Grace Mooney questioned the authorship of one of his designs.)
As well as minding the shop, Wootten secured a $100,000 federal training grant so Reid could bring four Haida apprentices to Vancouver from the Queen Charlottes for "skills enhancement training." But Reid was too ill to supervise them and Rammell took over. "Bill was sick more than half the time," says Garner Moody, one of the four who sold everything he owned in Skidegate to come to Vancouver to study with Reid. "He either didn't show up or when he did he would just go and sit in his office and stumble out once in awhile." At one point, Reid came to check their work on two totem poles and noted that the nose on one of the figures was too large. He accidentally chopped it off. "That was what it was like with that disease," recalls Moody. "He'd bounce around and jab all over the place. And you'd have to clean it up."
The talented Haida carver Yeomans from Prince Rupert, with the dashing good looks of Hollywood actor George Clooney, began working for Reid in 1986 when he carved a totem pole called Standing Big, a commission Reid had received during Vancouver centennial celebrations. That time, Yeomans received credit for his work. But in 1989, Reid also approached Yeomans for help with a wooden staff (a mould taken from it provided the bronze staff for the main figure in The Spirit of Haida Gwaii). That wooden staff was eventually sold in 1992 at Reid's last show, held at the Buschlen Mowatt Gallery. There, gallery notes described it "as an interpretation by Bill" of an old Haida staff.
Yeomans says Reid never touched it and that he carved it with the help of a white Vancouver Island artist. For Yeomans, the issue shows how little the buying public knows about Haida art. "I say anyone who would buy that staff and not know I did it, doesn't know much about this art," he says. "I have no sympathy for them. You're asking to be taken for a ride, whether by Bill or by anybody." At that last show, which featured $681,000 worth of items, other questions about quality and authenticity surfaced. Reid was best-known for, as he himself described it, "the well-made object": unique, hand-crafted works of jewelry that earned him comparison with world-renowned goldsmiths like Fabergé and Cellini. But even to an untrained eye, many of the pieces in the 1992 show could not compare with Reid's earlier works.
For Doris Shadbolt, the show was a desecration. In the past, Shadbolt had invested much of her critical reputation in Reid. In 1967 and 1974, she curated shows of his masterpieces at the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 1986, when Shadbolt wrote the book on Reid, she almost single-handedly elevated his work from anthropological craft to fine art. She believes the last show was put on simply for the money. "The time of Bill's original pieces was past and there were too many reproductions of one thing and another," she said during a recent interview. "Or minor pieces being represented as more major than they were. It was terrible." Barry Mowatt, owner of the gallery, says Shadbolt's comments are "purist at the most extreme level." In the art world, he adds, context is everything. "Bill had apprentices," says Mowatt, "but if he is the designer and even if he puts his finger on the piece of work, it's his work, he has the right to put his name on it."
Rammell, a thin, modest sculptor with an angular face that appears carved from rock, was Reid's most loyal lieutenant. When Reid needed help, Rammell was there. In 1983, he carved a small onyx version of The Raven and the First Men for Reid, which sold for a reported $250,000 to a Vancouver collector. When Reid couldn't chisel his own name into it, Rammell did it for him. Two years later, he did the finishing work on Reid's demonic-looking wooden frog Phyllidula, which went to the Vancouver Art Gallery in a $50,000 sale. Rammell often had to pretend he was a mere technician when working on Reid's projects: "I made it easy for him - I called myself a foreman."
In 1985, Reid once again turned to Rammell when he got the commission to produce a sculpture for the Canadian Embassy. That year, they began roughing out a small half-metre clay model for The Spirit of Haida Gwaii. "He had this little baby adze and would chop at things," remembers Rammell. "Then he'd shuffle away and come back, add a bit of mud and walk away." Rammell says Reid had some good ideas for the creatures in the bow, but adds, "the rest of the piece is just like spaghetti." Reid couldn't seem to focus on the project; he wouldn't tell Rammell want he wanted, and never even provided a working sketch. "It wasn't just the Parkinson's," Rammell says, "because he had lots of energy for other things, politics and dinners out and the lawyers. I felt like he was playing a game."
From the clay model, they developed a plaster working model. Non-native carver Doug Zilkie was brought in to begin surfacing it and giving clearer definition to the shapes. "I was starting to be happy with it," recalls Zilkie. "It was finally coming around." But one morning he came into work and found the model in a thousand pieces on the studio floor. Word spread quickly through the artistic community: Martine had caught Reid with the latest in a string of women. Infuriated, she destroyed the model with a hammer. "Martine lost it," says one worker who was involved with the project. "But she had the right. It was a zoo."
When Haida Gwaii was nearing completion, Reid made his first visit to the Canadian Embassy to see where the piece would sit. Only then did he realize that because of the site's location, the sculpture would have to face the wrong way - with its good side partially obscured. Reid asked Rammell if he could invert the sculpture, but it was impossible: the piece was on its way to going more than $1 million over the $250,000 budget that Nabisco Brands, which sponsored it, was originally willing to pay. In terms of location, The Jade Canoe copy fared little better. Reid originally wanted it in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. It now anchors the food mall in the international departure area of Vancouver International Airport, where signs reading "Please Do Not Climb on the Artwork" are intended to keep children from treating it like monkey bars.
Rammell's name appears nowhere on the embassy sculpture's dedication plaque. He was not even invited to the official unveiling - for the last six months of the project, he and Reid weren't speaking. Rammell says if he had to do it over, he would never have worked on the project. "At the end, Bill got really mad at me," Rammell says. "I was like an electric grinder that wouldn't turn on for him anymore. He couldn't understand that." When Reid spoke in 1996 at the airport unveiling of The Jade Canoe, Reid never mentioned his name, instead saying: "There are too many people for me to thank."
In fact, a whole nation. Reid used the Haida, incorporating their traditions in his art and employing native craftsmen. But the Haida, for whom Reid remains for the most part a hero, used him as well, as an eloquent and well-connected spokesman for native rights. Still, Reid's quest to put himself and his art on the map has left some bitterness in its wake.
Robert Davidson, 52, now considered the dean of Haida carvers, worked for many years in Reid's shadow. But many in the art world, including Rammell, believe he was always by far the superior designer. He just couldn't compete with Reid's persuasive speaking style or with his powerful connections to white institutions - the anthropologists, museums, media and galleries (in the early 1980s, Davidson lost the commission for the Vancouver Aquarium's killer whale sculpture to Reid after the latter put in a last-minute submission). As one Haida put it: "The white guys always get to pick their Indian."
Davidson is quick to credit Reid with expanding the appreciation for Haida art and helping create a thriving market. He also says Reid raised the standards of craftsmanship. But Davidson is equally quick to point out that Reid, in climbing to the top, played fast and loose with some truths, perpetuating the view, popularized by anthropologists, that Haida art was on the point of extinction. In the mid-1980s, Reid claimed to great public approval that he was going to reinvent the lost art of Haida canoe building, maintaining there hadn't been one built for 100 years. In fact, Davidson says his grandfather and great uncle built one in 1937.
After that time, according to Davidson, the Haida began building wooden seine boats - not because the art of canoe building was disappearing, but because the different style was better for fishing. Further, Davidson recites the names of about 20 skilled carvers who predated Reid and kept Haida art alive despite white laws prohibiting natives from celebrating their culture. "When I was 13 or 14, I had already been labelled the last of the carvers," Davidson says. "But I was just getting started." That was in the 1950s - when the older Reid was just getting started as well. He would soon come into his own, flamboyant, eloquent and ambitious. He would become a larger-than-life icon who cast a huge shadow, one that ultimately obscured his fellow artists - as well as some unsettling truths.
The High Price of Bill Reid's Art
Throughout Bill Reid's career, the value of his art soared. Some of the more lucrative works and reported prices:
1. The Jade Canoe, a version of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, now in the Vancouver International Airport, $3 million.
2. The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, the original bronze version at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, $1.5 million.
3. Dogfish Transformation Pendant, a gold necklace based on a boxwood carving, now in private hands, $100,000.
A Spokesman For the Haida Cause
In the winter of 1985, an ailing Bill Reid was helicoptered onto the Queen Charlotte Islands to join a Haida blockade of a logging road. Reid only stayed a day on Lyell Island, but his commitment to the Haida and their land-claims battle was fierce. He spoke passionately and wrote poetically about preserving Haida territory. He even auctioned off his artwork in support of the fight. "The real value of Bill Reid was in raising our international profile," says Guujaaw, president of the Haida Nation. "He gave us a lot of support."
About 2,500 Haida now live in the Queen Charlottes, known as Haida Gwaii, the misty, forested archipelago off the northern coast of British Columbia. At the height of their powers in the mid-19th century, the Haida numbered about 8,000 and lived in 14 different villages . They were known as traders and raiders, admired for their seamanship and feared for their ability to make strikes against neighbouring tribes. But by 1915, European diseases like smallpox had decimated the Haida, reducing their number to around 500.
The laws of Canada were also devastating. Haida were rounded up from their villages and forced to move to either Skidegate or Masset - which remain the two main centres. They, along with other Indian bands, were also prohibited from speaking their language and practising native customs. Children were taken from their families and sent to residential schools. Haida carver Robert Davidson says the Haida are still feeling the effects of those disastrous policies. But he also notes a return to traditional customs - a sign that the Haida renaissance Bill Reid helped fuel is continuing.
Maclean's October 18, 1999