Art

Adieu to two pioneers

Joyce Wieland 1931-1998 Bill Reid 1920-1998

Brian D. Johnson July 13 1998
Art

Adieu to two pioneers

Joyce Wieland 1931-1998 Bill Reid 1920-1998

Brian D. Johnson July 13 1998

Adieu to two pioneers

Art

Joyce Wieland 1931-1998 Bill Reid 1920-1998

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

In a contemporary art world ruled by white male abstractionists, they were groundbreaking exceptions—two Canadians whose work was based in earth and flesh, in beauty, fertility and the power of the land. It would be hard to name two more quintessentially Canadian artists than Joyce Wieland and Bill Reid. Both were multimedia

pioneers. Wieland—painter, sculptor, quilt-maker and film-maker—was the first female artist to shake up the swaggering boys’ club of the Toronto art scene in the late 1950s, a joyful provocateur who drew a lyrical arc between feminism and the feminine. Reid—Haida carver, sculptor, jeweller and broadcaster—won international recognition for North-West Coast carving, taking it from the ethnographic ghetto to fine-art glamor, while restoring and enriching the native tradition at its roots. Wieland died on June 27 at age 66, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease.

Reid died in March at age 78 after a 30-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. His ashes were buried last weekend at an ancient Haida site in the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Joyce Wieland’s life and art overflowed with a spirit of reckless affirmation. Her work was sensuous, whimsical and playfully polemical. She expressed a passion for the Canadian landscape and for the female body—the two often merging as ripe metaphors for each other’s identity. Her work ranged all over the map, in every sense, and drew on a wild array of materials. Years before the AIDS quilt or the china vaginas of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, Wieland was subverting domestic icons. She became the first woman to elevate traditional female crafts such as embroidery and quilting to high art. Ahead of her time and underappreciated,

Wieland was nevertheless honored with major shows at the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario; in fact, she became the first living Canadian female artist to be granted a retrospective by the AGO.

“Joyce was an artist right to her fingertips,” says painter Doris McCarthy, who was her art teacher at Central Technical School in Toronto during the late 1940s and became a lifelong friend. “She had a tremendous sense of vitality, a zest for love, for sex, for color. She also had a feeling for Canada, and a strong sense of the validity of the feminist movement.”

The daughter of British immigrant parents—both had died by the time she was 9—Wieland was raised by her older brother and sister in impoverished circumstances. After graduating from high school, she worked as an animator, and met artist Michael Snow, who was her husband for 20 years. While Snow and his male colleagues attacked giant canvases and made big expressionist constructions—such as Snow’s stainless steel cutouts of walking women— Wieland made pillowy art with an edge.

For True Patriot Love, her 1971 exhibition at the National Gallery, Wieland celebrated national flora in a show accessorized with little bottles of Sweet Beaver, the Perfume of Canadian Liberation. Her Water Quilt was made of 64 arctic flowers and grasses embroidered on muslin flaps, concealing passages from a book about resource exploitation printed on 64 little pillows stitched together. In Wieland’s hands, words became lip-soft objets, slurring

the erotic and the political.

Her 0 Canada quilt spelled out lyrics from the national anthem in stuffed syllables.

On another quilt, she hijacked Pierre Trudeau’s credo,

“Reason over passion,” which also became the title of a trans-Canada odyssey that she filmed from trains and cars.

As an experimental film-maker, Wieland was a ceaseless innovator. In Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968), she cast her pet gerbils as American draft dodgers who take up organic gardening. And although The Far Shore (1976)—her attempt to make a mainstream drama about love and landscape—failed, it continues to fascinate. Kay Armatage, a film-maker and professor of cinema studies at the University of Toronto, directed a 1987 documentary about Wieland called Artist on Fire. “I was so struck by the way Joyce’s films stayed alive,” she recalls. “They have a conceptual richness that can’t be ascribed to just one historical moment. There’s a humor that runs through her work, but also a sense of excess and exuberance—a joy in the body, in flesh and in light.”

Bill Reid’s life was an epic voyage, one that involved a trail-blazing portage over the Great Divide of North American history. It took him from an Anglican childhood in Victoria, where he was raised as a whiter-than-white boy in sailor suits and kid gloves in the 1920s, to his final resting place on the site of his Haida mother’s ancestral village in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Reid, whose father was an American hotel manager of Scottish-German descent, did not learn that his mother was Haida until his late teens. Then, at 23, he was galvanized by a visit to the Queen Charlottes, where he spent a week watching his grandfather carve. “It hit him with a big bang,” says Doris Shadbolt, Vancouver-based author of the 1987 book Bill Reid. From then on, she adds, “what drove him was the will to become truly Haida, and to prove to the world that the Haida culture was up there among the best of them.”

In 1948, while working as a CBC Radio news announcer, Reid studied jewelry-mak-

ing at Toronto’s Ryerson Technical Institute. Reviving Haida designs, he went on to create exquisite work that, by the mid1980s, commanded higher prices than that of any living goldsmith. Meanwhile, Reid spearheaded a renaissance of North-West Coast art with silk screens, totems and sculptures. The Haida poles that he carved for the University of British Columbia in 1958 now dominate Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology—also home to his Raven and the First Men, depicting mankind crawling out of a clamshell. His life-size bronze killer whale can be seen leaping outside the Vancouver Aquarium. And his ship-of-fools masterpiece, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, graces Canada’s Embassy in Washington—a canoe overflowing with creatures of Haida mythology.

But Reid often found more pleasure in I the miniature than the monumental. § “When he was working at his bench, and I on his own, it was pure joy,” says his wife, I Martine, who met him in 1975 as a 30-yeary old PhD student in anthropology visiting d from France. “But large projects became a “ little hectic at times.” The artist was known for his acerbic wit. Shortly before his death, Martine recalls, he made a print for the Parkinson’s foundation. “He said, Well, Mr. Parkinson has done so much for me, perhaps it’s time I do something for him.’ ” Reid also had a passion for opera. ‘We own a little cottage in the Gulf Islands. He would hang speakers on the trees and play music very loud. He’d say, We’re educating the wildlife.’ ” □