Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Raven and the First Men

The most important and well known Pacific Northwest Coast aboriginal artist was Bill Reid and his work features prominently at the Museum of Anthropology which I visited recently for the ceramic exhibition I wrote about earlier. While there I also visited the rest of the Museum itself and in this post I want to show you one of the great highlights of Bill's work.

Bill Reid was born of a Haida mother and an American father and did not know of his native heritage until in his teens. His first career was in radio in Toronto, however a jewellery making course set him on a new artistic path and he began to explore Haida design in his jewellery. He also became involved in totem pole restoration under a master carver and thus he moved into wood carving. This link gives a very comprehensive biography so I won't repeat the information, for here I want to introduce you to the monumental carving which sits in the rotunda at the Museum of Anthropology.

The Raven and the Men

Walter Koerner of the Ceramic Gallery collections had acquired a very large block of laminated yellow cedar and he commissioned Bill Reid to carve this work which sits flooded with natural light under a clear glass dome. It took two years to carve, even with the help of several others, and it was unveiled in 1980 by Charles, the Prince of Wales. The huge work was lowered into place by crane through the ceiling and it rests on its podium on a ripple of sand which reminds one of the waves of the sea. It was actually placed above one of the World War II gun turrets which remained in the area where the Museum was built. It is a lovely golden glowing image, for the cedar was never stained, however there are several cracks which have formed over the years, causing much consternation.

A different angle of the work, note the tilt on the sculpture

The work represents the Haida Creation legend where Raven discovers men emerging from a clamshell on a beach at Rose Spit in the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia and the sand in the display was brought here by the Haida from this specific beach.
According to this myth, the raven who was both bored and well fed, found and freed some creatures trapped in a clam. These scared and timid beings were the first men of the world, and they were coaxed out of the clam shell by the raven. Soon the raven was bored with these creatures and planned to return them to their shell. Instead, the raven decided to search for the female counterparts of these male beings. The raven found some female humans trapped ina a chiton, freed them, and was entertained as the two sexes met and began to interact. The raven, always known as a trickster was responsible for the pairing of humans and felt very protective of them. With the Raven perceived as the creator, many Haida myths and legends often suggest the raven as a provider to mankind.*

A rear view shows more detail on the body and tail of the Raven

This work of Bill Reid graces the back of the $20 banknote along with three others of his works, the most notable being The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, his momunental bronze sculpture outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. I was very privileged to see this in Washington several years ago and, although we have another casting of this sculpture at the Vancouver Airport, it was good to see it in the place for which it was designed.

*Taken from here.


Eurodog said...

I like the idea of humans emerging from a clam. Makes a difference from the cabbages.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

The First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest have a particularly unique and for me, haunting art and imagery. I would love to learn more. Visiting the Queen Charlotte Islands would be a very spiritual experience for me.

CalumCarr said...

What an interesting piece! Thanks for showing and describing this.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating isnt it how creation myths exist everywhere...? I love the sculpture by the way, what a wonderful object.

rlbates said...

Beautiful sculpture!!!

Carver said...

I didn't know about the Haida creation legend. That's very interesting and the carving is amazing. Very beautiful and powerful. I'll have to come back when I have more time and follow some of the links you posted for us. You always present your posts so well and make it easy for us to learn more about the subject matter. Take care, Carver

Sarabeth said...

That's a stunning carving.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

That is truly amazing as well as being beautiful. I've never seen anything like that. Thanks, jmb.

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Wonder who dreamed up the clam idea?

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

The Raven has a curious fate in legends, he often sems to show up, for us, a bird of ill omen, for the Haida, their amivalent benefactor.

They love their trickster Gods, First Nations peoples, don't they?

Sean Jeating said...

In every sense a great sculpture, and the Haida-myth - just marvellous, and not because I was once told that according to an Indian horoscope I were a raven. :)
Phantastic post, jmb. Thanks.

jmb said...

Hi Eurodog,
I hadn't thought of it that way but you are right.

I find the native art very special too and we are surrounded by it now as it has become more accepted.

Hi Calum,
It is an amazing piece and I visit it fairly often. It was probably his first really well known monumental piece.

Hi Mutley,
Each society came up with how man was created in its own unique way and this legend is truly different.
Hi Ramona,
Isn't it beautiful. The figures are wonderful and the raven, so detailed.

Hi carver,
I'm glad you enjoyed the post. A very special piece of art.

Hi Sarabeth,
Stunning is a good word for it, because it just stops you in your tracks when you come into the rotunda.

Very unique, indeed. It's by far the best wood sculpture I have ever seen.

Hi James,
Why it was a message revealed from the gods, you know.

Hi Crushed,
Raven is very important to the Haida, although ambivalent as you say. The trickster doesn't sound very nice. The raven and the eagle are the two clans of the Haida so he's very important.

Hi Sean,
So you are a trickster. Why am I not surprised? The myth is interesting to say the least, but Bill Reid's interpretation is truly a great piece of art and stands with any of the great classical sculptures.

Thanks to everyone for visiting and commenting on this post.

Tai said...

I LOVE that sculpture, cracks and all.
When I lived in Vancouver I could spend hours in the MOA...I miss it!

Ellee Seymour said...

What a talented artist, I wish I had this kind of talent.

Liz said...

I thought the raven was squashing them in until I read your post!

What a marvellous piece of artwork.

jmb said...

Hi Tai,
Isn't it the greatest? It was a while since I had been so I had a good look around. Not much change however they have a big renovation going on.

Hi Ellee,
Well I think not only do you have to have talent but you have to have a great deal of patience. Two years is a long time to spend on one work.

Hi Liz,
You could imagine that. Get back there, they are escaping, round them up. A very stunning piece of art work indeed.

Thanks to you all for visiting and commenting.

Ardent said...

Loved the sculpture. An amazing piece of work by a brilliant artist.

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