The Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid - A Critical Research Essay

The Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid - A Critical Research Essay

Bill Reid was a Canadian man of Haida native decent. A tribe from the pacific north-west British Columbia. Reid is a world-renown artist, whose art is inspired by his cultural tradition in masterful wood carvings as a form of story telling. At 35 he visited Haida Gwaii, (Islands of the people/Queen Charlotte Islands) where he became particularly impassioned to create art after seeing a pair bracelets carved by the well-known native artist Charles Edenshaw, also of Haida decent, who also happens to be Reids Great uncle. Reid tapped into the ancient traditions and masterful carving techniques that epitomized native art and its dreamlike beauty. Reid is responsible for the insurgence of many native artists, and the ressurection of their culture into the art world.

Reid slowly learned to emulate the traditional style of west coast native tribes. Who were well known for their wood carvings and totems also crafted from wood while using rounded geometrical shapes in patterned formations to illustrate the image of an animal, or a person. The sculptures and carvings that were produced with, often times, really quite simple tools are amazingly intricate beautifully and masterfully crafted and aesthetically breathtaking, but also narrate stories passed down from generation to generation. Reids work “Raven and the First men” is a great example of this. It narrates the Haida story of the discovery of man in the shell of a clam. The Raven was said to have freed the humans from the clamshell and given them fire.

Reids take on the story involves a Raven standing possessively over top of a clam shell containing humans, who, some cowering, and some curiously peering, stare out from the shell to the new world. This is a literal representation of the story, the fact that the carving doesn’t dance around the story and its literal meaning is something that the natives were well known for, as they had to pass there stories down for generations, extraneous detail or flowery details could eventually muddy the true story and potentially lose its impact, or moral. These were supposed to be historical records, not flowery myths. The narrative is reminiscent of Platos Allegory of the Cave. In Platos allegory the men were in a dark cave, the only sights or sounds that they heard were echos or exaggerated silhouettes, this is what they knew to be truth, as they’d seen nothing else. However once exposed to the real world they had a hard time coming to terms with it, and believing it. This impression can be seen by the fact that some of the men are hiding away, as if to return to the darkness. While some look out with bewilderment.

The Raven was a very important animal to the Haida people, it is accredited to many things, such as the creation of the sun, star, and moon. The creation of man, freshwater, trees, and practically everything else.

Originally Bill Reids piece was only 7 cm tall, but with the help of several other artists, sculptors, and carvers, Reid was able to make a new much larger version, however it took 2 years to complete, some have criticized it, suggesting that some of the subtle nuances that were intriguing in the first one have been diminished and destroyed in the larger version. But by its immense size the level of craftsmanship can be better appreciated, and that’s what the traditional art was most heralded for, not subtle nuances, but by pure aesthetic beauty and technical skill to narrate a story.

This piece is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, both pieces show an intimate connection between man and his maker, it seems odd that Western religious myths most predominately had human like creators and gods, while in the (pre) Americas it seemed to mainly be animal gods, while humans were under them, or created by them. It shows how remarkably different two cultures that had been removed from eachother for thousands of years can differ in reflection of the world, and the myths of creation.

In this piece it is as if Bill Reid is actually the Raven, the Haida are being awakened, Bill Reid nearly single handedly re-created them. After there population was practically wiped out and their culture nearly lost, Reid has breathed new life into them, There was a resurgence of interest into Native tribal art, their simplistic beauty, symmetrical nature, and narrations, were appreciated by the public and brought pride to the decendants of the native people, whose culture the Europeans tried to defuse, and to assimilate them into their own Christian, colonial ideals.

Bill Reid’s Raven and the first men, is nearly 3 meters high and made of laminated yellow ceder wood, carved by many sculptures in assistance to Reid, mostly whom were also of Haida decent. Reid required much assistance in the larger work as he was working on many projects at the same time, and even with the help it still took around 2 years to complete. His assistants, George Norris, Gary Edenshaw helped to carved the initial shape, while Reid had to use the service of Jim Hart and Red Davidson worked on the fine tuning near the end of production.

As the Raven perches over top of the humans, as they cower from the outside world, it seems as though the Raven is protecting them with its very maternal position. Its wings are spread partially open and its large head with its attentive eyes are held lower as if to protect the humans from the world that they’re now exposed to.