Shaman with your wide and planeful
face, the boomerang of
your lips, the heavy opaqueness
of your enormous ovoid eyes,
I sit now before your gaze.
But do you see me? Did the
reed of the North
imbue you with life itself?
The piano with no player
finishes its song, and no one claps.
After a brief pause, it continues
in wild, classical, blanketing traps.
The orca flies at the top of your staff
and you are cosy, coated in
spiritual symbolism, warm
mountain of calm
in a tension
of together-chaos, bear protecting
at the bow —
— the playerless piano grows too
loud and cheerful, I must leave, now —
and when I fell through
clouds I saw your ridges
as if they were the ridges of my own
skin, I felt your wings
open as if they were my own
arms, I saw your leaf-like
veins upon the water as if
they were the plains of my own
water-table, as if it was
my own green-bluish blood.
And I saw the shadow of the
plane upon the sea-plain
and recognized it as my own
and I thought of the jade
and indigo shapes
the sea’s surface
and believed them to be
This was partly inspired by Bill Reid’s amazing 5000 kg bronze sculpture, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (also known as The Jade Canoe). An electric grand piano (not shown) stands nearby, looping cheery jazz and classical tunes through its internal speakers.
I got to see it again when I passed through Vancouver International airport this past February, on my way home from my mom’s memorial. That was the first time I’d been back to Canada in nine years. Partly due to the emotional state I was in after processing my mother’s sudden death, seeing the massive and heavily symbolic sculpture with fresh eyes was a particularly profound experience for me.
I was reminded of it by recent posts of fellow WP blogger, and amazing artist, MultipleMichael, who’d created some digital “refurbished” impressions of a different Bill Reid sculpture (The Raven And the First Men — please see here for Michael’s post: “Refurbished Bill Reid” [or WP Reader link: https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/25991949].)
I love Michael’s work (first followed him via another blog); I learn more about art in general, from observing his blog, I sometimes get massively inspired by it, and I was so happy to see his Bill Reid impressions come up. Please check out his blog at the above links if you don’t know of it already.
Bill Reid was one of the greatest artists of the past century, imho. Read more about him here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Reid
I became most familiar with Bill’s work way back in my university days, when I took a course in interpreting First Nations art of the Pacific Northwest coast (can’t remember exact title, but it was something like that). Each shape and animal in Pacific Northwest Coast art has meaning, steeped in ancient artistic, natural and spiritual tradition dating back through millennia.
He imbued his artwork not only with incredible skill, and mammoth interactive size, but also fine levels of symbolism that tell a story of the First Nations peoples as a culture, in their struggle to co-exist with nature, especially in a modern human-interpreted world whose participants have a tendency to override the surroundings, as well as each other.
As most west coast Canadians are aware, much of Haida and other First Nations culture was overridden by the arrival of white, predominantly Christian, European settlers, who for the most part saw the natives peoples as a primitives who (conveniently) needed to be “saved.” They tricked or forced them out of their land, committed genocide in part using “gifts” of smallpox-infested blankets, severely debilitated them by the introduction of alcohol (further “gifts”) to their unaccustomed systems, and moved the remainder into what were then called “Indian” land reservations — basically, enclosed and controlled encampments. The First Nations peoples were brutally treated by the conquering mainstream culture as inferior, in spite of the deep understanding the First Nations held, embodied, and practiced, of the systems of the natural world as a whole. But Bill Reid was born (in 1920) from a loving union that united native and European cultures — his Haida mother, and his American father, a man of Scottish and German descent.
With his vast success as a prolific creator, Bill provides an excellent example of how even in the most oppressive and culturally bleak conditions (in this case — the near-obliteration of First Nations culture by the invasion of the Europeans) it is possible — with a lot of hard work and a little luck — to not only survive, but thrive, through creativity, positivity, and interconnectivity.
Part of his skill lay in his ability to enlist the help of others to enact his culturally-important, preservationist creative vision, especially near the end of his life, as his physical health declined.
The huge body of his work exudes deep appreciation for every element of the circle of life itself.
Images: Immediately above: Grizzly Bear, his human wife and their children, at the front of the canoe. Bear faces backwards, sheltering the other inhabitants of the boat as he gazes towards Raven (the mythological trickster and creator figure, at the rear of the boat; not shown) or perhaps at Shaman (the tribal spiritual leader, and central figure in the boat, seen in top image), or toward the past. In the top image, Eagle can be seen rowing, while grasping Bear’s paw in his beak. Bear Mother is one of the rowers, looking forward, keeping her bear-children close.
“So there is certainly no lack of activity in our little boat, but is there any purpose? Is the tall figure who may or may not be the Spirit of Haida Gwaii leading us, for we are all in the same boat, to a sheltered beach beyond the rim of the world as he seems to be, or is he lost in a dream of his own dreamings? The boat moves on, forever anchored in the same place.” – BillReidFoundation.ca
Note 2020-04-14: Some post-publish edits made to reduce length of text.
Images by the author. Nadine inhales & exhales words & images from current vantage point in Auvergne, France. Thank you for reading. ❤︎