The Jade Canoe

Posted by Jhan Dudley on

The iconic Jade Canoe, designed by Haida artist, Bill Reid, serves as the natural center point of the Vancouver International Airport. 'The Jade Canoe' is also widely considered to be Reid's greatest masterpiece.

Nearly 20 feet long, 13 feet high, and 11.5 feet wide, the bronze sculpture weighs over 5 tons. The canoe's green patina is meant to mimic jade, BC’s official gemstone.

Indeed, there is something 'magical' about the sculpture, and travelers can often be seen touching the sculpture for good luck, before boarding their flight. The luckiest part of the Jade Canoe is, apparently, the Old Mouse Woman’s nose, which explains why it is noticeably worn down.

The Two Canoes

The Canoe was originally fashioned in clay in Bill Reid’s Granville Island studio in 1986, and was 1/6th the size of it's bronze counterpart. Two years later, Reid made the full the scale model. The pieces were then removed, one by one, and cast in plaster. The final bronze sculpture was made at the Talix Foundry in Beacon, New York.

There were actually two castings of the Jade Canoe made. The first one, completed in 1991, resides at the Canadian embassy in Washington D.C. It is known as 'The Black Canoe'. The second, 'The Jade Canoe', was completed in 1994, and is the sculpture that proudly sits in the main terminal of the Vancouver Airport. It was originally located in Quebec's Canadian Museum of History, across the river from Parliament Hill. Then, in 1996, the sculpture was moved to it's present location at YVR.

The Rich Symbolism of the Jade Canoe

All total, there are 13 passengers riding the canoe, including men, women, animals, and mythical Haida creatures.1. Sitting at the back, and steering the canoe, the 'Raven' is one of the Haida people's most prominent figures. In Haida mythology, the Raven is considered to be a trickster. The fact that he is steering the boat is meant to represent the unpredictability of life.

2. Crouched beneath Raven's tail sits the 'Mouse Woman', the wise and ancient grandmother.

3. The 'Ancient Reluctant Conscript', the paddler sitting just in front of the Raven, is actually a self-portrait of the artist.

4. In front of him, the 'Wolf' can be seen biting the wing of an eagle, while clawing the back of a beaver.

5. The 'Beaver' is Raven's uncle.

6. The 'Eagle' is, in turn, biting the paw of a bear.

7. Crouched beneath Eagle's beak is the 'Frog'.

8. Meanwhile, the 'Grizzly Bear', who sits at the front of the canoe, remains wary of the Raven’s tricks, and keeps a close eye on him. 

9. 'Bear Mother', Grizzly's human wife, is wearing a labret, which extends from her bottom lip, and indicates that she is a women of high social standing.

10. Next to 'Bear Mother' are her two cubs, 'Good Bear' (with forward-pointing ears)...

11. And 'Bad Bear' (with ears pointing to the rear).

12. The 'Dogfish Woman' is , likewise, wearing a labret.

13. Occupying the highest and most prominent spot in the canoe is 'The Shaman'.

The Magic of Art

Reid's inclusion of this diverse group of beings is highly significant. They are meant to represent not just one people, but all living beings on the planet. Their variety is meant to show the interdependence of the elements of nature on which the Haida people depended for their very survival. Though they are not always in harmony, struggling to get along in this crowded canoe, they are all, nonetheless, headed in the same direction. They are, after all, on the journey of life together, and depend on one another to survive.

Bill Reid's iconic sculpture is especially meaningful to me. It constantly reminds me of how the 'magic' of art is in its ability to explain the complexity of life with nothing more than symbols, colors, and textures. I continue to be amazed by, not just the beauty, but the sheer power of art! I sincerely hope that you'll get a similar feeling from my own work.

Bill Reid’s legacy lives on at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art located in Downtown Vancouver. Check it out!

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