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artist and writer Emily Carr

by Elizabeth Dobson | July 11, 2001

Why is Emily Carr (1871–1945) one of Canada’s most famous artists? It seems unlikely that this “isolated little old woman on the edge of nowhere”1 should become an icon of Canadian culture. Yet, living in Victoria, B.C. – a far-flung outpost of the British Empire at the turn of the last century – can be seen as an advantage that many Canadian artists did not have. This is because it placed her at a distance from the cultural centres of the east coast and Europe.

People in those centres saw life in remote colonies as primitive: little intellectual and cultural stimulation, rough lives shared with native peoples. “Natives” – according to the thinking and language of the time – were simple people who lived close to nature. They were considered to be “on the lower rungs” of the evolutionary ladder – inferior beings, yet untainted by the evils and complexities of “civilized” society.

(This view was based on the western construction of the “noble savage” developed in the 18th century. It was a philosophical construct borne out of nostalgia for the past when life was imagined to have been simpler and less corrupt – a kind of secularized version of the story of Adam and Eve in which “nature” substitutes for the garden of Eden. See, for example, works like Emile, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This idea continued to be used, reworked in form, by scientific theorists of human evolution in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as for example Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man and Emile Durkheim in Education et sociologie. Today these ideas are viewed as out-dated, biased, racist – but in Emily Carr’s time many accepted them as scientific fact, although some did not.)

Emily Carr was one of those who positively embraced the traditions of Aboriginal people. As a young girl, her attitude toward her Victorian upbringing had soured, and she turned increasingly to the great West Coast forest and its peoples for comfort and inspiration. When describing her early visits to Indian villages, she said: “It was as if everything hugged me ... in Vancouver everything hurt.” 2 Like Paul Gauguin in the French colony of Tahiti, Emily Carr thus came to be seen as an artist who lived not only on the very edge of civilization, but was also deeply in touch with life in its pure and primitive forms. 3

This image of a life close to nature was associated with Canada right from the early days of exploration. Canada was seen as nature in pristine form – vast uninhabited lakes and forests that offered up furs, fish, timber, minerals – gifts as pure and good as gold. With the emergence of the United States as a political power, Canada, by contrast a sparsely settled colony with little voice, came increasingly to be defined as a rich natural landscape – pure, unspoiled and abundant.4 Canadian nation-builders at the beginning of the 20th century used this quasi-paradisical image of the land to build a national identity. The Group of Seven helped to define this with their distinctive landscapes. Emily Carr was there too – and had been there for years!

Nothing more clearly associates Emily Carr with the “Primitive Other life” uncontaminated by civilization than the first few pages of her own book, Klee Wyck.5 Here she describes her journey as a young woman to the native fishing village of Ucluelet on Vancouver Island’s west coast [north of Port Alberni]. She was the guest of two Presbyterian missionaries, but her heart was clearly with the Indian people.

  • The mission house, she says, was cramped and inhospitable: “There was only two of everything in the kitchen, so I had to sit on a box, drink from a bowl and eat my food out of a tin pie-dish.”6 This austere house was for her “deathly still ... [It looked] as if it were stuffed with black.”7 She clearly disapproves, too, of her Christian hosts, whom she mockingly refers to as the “Greater Missionary” and the “Lesser Missionary.” Their efforts to teach the Indians she finds ludicrous. She describes, for example, how the Greater Missionary would stride each morning with great majesty along the trail to the schoolhouse, blowing all the while a big cow’s horn to call the students to class. But the children did not come: “She had an amazing wind, the blasts were stunning, but they failed to call the children to school, because no voice had ever suggested time or obligation to these Indian children.”8
  • In contrast, Carr describes the Indian homes as large and welcoming, “soaked through and through with sunshine ... each family had its own fire with its own things round it.”9 She knocks on their doors and makes friends with the Indian villagers. She affectionately describes them, referring to each one by name: Tanook, Mrs. Wynook, old Hipi, Jimmie and Louisa ...

Klee Wyck was Emily Carr’s first published book. She received a Governor General’s award for it in 1942, the year after it was published – a very impressive accomplishment.10 More popular than anything she had done up to that time, Klee Wyck put her on the map as a writer and artist of considerable fascination and ability.11 She was 71 years old at the time. Fame came late to Emily Carr.

After that she went on to publish more books, almost all autobiographical in nature.12 Her life and work thus became inextricably linked. This combination – an exotic life story with production of strong, expressive paintings of West Coast forests and Indian villages – proved to be extraordinarily successful for the development (or “construction”) of celebrity status.

Certainly too she had innate talent as an artist. This was evident when she was a child, but not recognized as especially remarkable in her early student years.13 At the California School of Design, which she attended between 1891 and 1893 14, it is reported that she never distinguished herself in any of her classes and got “no gold medals or honourable mentions.”15

Yet she worked hard to develop her talent, and showed professional acumen to get the training and help she needed.16

  • In 1899, she saved up enough money to travel to England where she hoped to be introduced to exciting new ideas in art. Her experiences there were certainly useful, but unfortunately, the London Westminster School where she enrolled turned out to be fairly conservative: “plodding and uninspiring ... not very exciting.”17
  • In 1910, she took another trip to Europe, this time to France. By then she had decided that the gentle English style of watercolour painting did not serve her purposes. She wanted something stronger to capture the “bigness and stark reality” of the native totems she wanted to paint.18 This decision to go to Paris was important to her career. It set her firmly along the path as a modernist painter, ensuring her a prominent place (later on) amongst the Canadian avant-garde painters. She was seen by many critics later in her career as having a style totally emanating from herself. This was a fallacy, but it fit with their image of her as a primitive, a woman artist untouched by civilization.19

For decades, however, Emily Carr’s paintings received only mild and local attention. Sales, too, were low. After her return from England, her conventional watercolours received bland reviews: reviewers called her portraits “quaint and pretty” and her botanical drawings “charming.”20 After France, some did react strongly to her pictures. After one exhibit in 1912, a local reviewer attacked her “vanity” for trying to “eclipse the Almighty [by producing] such bizarre work.” 21 But, in general, people merely gave her a “passively respectful response.”22 In 1913, the first year she exhibited a large number of Indian works (c200, most of them done between 1898 to 1905), she received only one review in the local Vancouver newspaper: without comment on the artistic merits of the show, the reviewer simply called it “a very valuable record of a passing race.”23

It was mainly ethnologists, like Dr. C. F. Newcombe (associated with the Provincial Museum in British Columbia) and Marius Barbeau (of the Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa) who were enthusiastic about her Indian sketches and paintings. Newcombe valued them not only as important records but also as positive recognition of the artistic traditions of Native people. Nevertheless he would not recommend them to the Provincial Museum, judging them to be “too brilliant and vivid to be true to the actual conditions of the coast villages.”24

Yet Emily Carr persevered in her passion for Indian scenes. They gave her great personal satisfaction. This was because, as one art historian suggests, she identified with Native people who lived outside her own society whose “narrow” and “hypocritical” values she had already rejected.25 The style of Native art also appealed to her desire for personal expression. In Growing Pains, she says: “Indian art broadened my seeing, loosened the formal tightness I had learned in England’s schools ... The Indian caught first at the inner intensity of his subject, worked outward to the surfaces.”26 Painting these scenes also gave her a much-needed purpose in life as a young artist. As she explained in her letters, she had decided in 1907, while on a pleasure trip to Sitka, Alaska, to record for posterity the Indians and their totem poles “before they are a thing of the past” Emily Carr.27

Later on, however, Emily Carr developed a new purpose: to paint the spirit of Canada.28 This was in 1927, after she met the Group of Seven. These were a group of Canadian painters striving to express “the essence” of Canada through landscape, using a new visual language.29 Their wilderness scenes, so strong and full of feeling, powerfully affected her. In her journals she describes her first impressions of Lawren Harris’s work: “Oh, God, what have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world.”30 The Group, in turn, were extremely impressed by her works, recognizing in them a poetic vision and artistic tradition very similar to their own. Lawren Harris was particularly enthusiastic and, almost on first meeting, assured her: “You are one of us.”31 This wholehearted acceptance was truly remarkable for a woman painter at the time.

To paint the spirit of Canada was a goal that matched her deep passion for “Big Expression” – big was a word she used a lot:

  • “What about our side of Canada – the Great West, standing before us big and strong and beautiful? ... She’s young but she’s very big. If we dressed her in the art dresses of the older countries she would burst them. So we will have to make her a dress of her own.”32
  • “The new ideas are big and they fit this big land.”33
  • “Lawren Harris’s pictures are still in my brain. They are the biggest, strongest part of my whole trip East. It is as if a door had opened, a door into unknown tranquil spaces.”34
  • “I want the big God.”35

Emily Carr today continues to be one of Canada’s “Big Artists.” Her life story still has great appeal as a modern romance – personal growth, strong emotions, battles fought and won. Her books are still read, reprinted, and republished in a variety of new forms.36 Poets and artists pay homage to her.37 Playwrights and filmmakers produce works about her.38 Children learn about her in the schools and through books.39 There is even a book about her as a dog breeder (she did, for a time, breed English sheep dogs and bobtails).40

She is now lauded as one of Canada’s nation-builders, an artist who helped express and give shape to Canada’s unique identity. Northrop Frye, for example, accorded her national stature when he said she was one of the first to try to paint the reality of our own land. 41

Her life as a woman is honoured by feminists.42

She is also considered a worthy subject by today’s postmodern writers. Some, for example, challenge her attitude towards native peoples, saying it was naïve, imperialistic and even racist.43 The travelling exhibit launched by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in 1999, To the Totem Forests, quietly attempts to refute these claims by showing her work and placing it the context of the times. Others analyze Carr’s self-presentation through her works, pointing out the inherent fallacies in her stories and in the biographical genre in general.

Uncontested, however, is the acceptance of Emily Carr as one of Canada’s most important artists. Anyone with a big passion for life can learn much from Emily Carr.

Besides, Carr said, “It is not all bad, this getting old, ripening. After the fruit has got its growth it should juice up and mellow. God forbid I should live long enough to ferment and rot and fall to the ground in a squash.”

more to consider

DID YOU KNOW that there are about a hundred asteroids named after Canadians and one of them is named after Emily Carr? It’s called Klee Wyck, her native name (and the name of her book). Asteroids can only been seen through a telescope and look like potatoes! They’re grey and dusty rocks a few kilometers across and thousands and thousands of them orbit the sun in a belt between Jupiter and Mars. A few dozen asteroids orbit near earth. Cool, eh?

to view her work in person
  • Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own ran until September 9, 2001 at the McMichael, Kleinburg, Ontario and travels from there to the Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico (October 6, 2001–January 7, 2002), the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. (February 7–May 12, 2002) and the Vancouver Art Gallery (June 15–September 15, 2002)
  • Drawing the Forest, July 27–September 23. Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1040 Moss Street, Victoria, British Columbia, V8V 4P1, tel. (250) 384-4101
  • Emily Carr: Eccentric, Artist, Author, Genius, until April 7, 2002. Royal British Columbia Museum, 675 Belleville Street, Victoria, British Columbia, V8W 9W2, tel. (250) 356-7226 or 1 -888-447-7977
to walk in her footsteps
  • Emily Carr House, 207 Government Street, Victoria, BC V8V 2K8, tel. (250) 383-5843
  • Walking tours of Emily Carr’s neighbourhood: tel. (250) 382-4455, e-mail danda@dandahumphreys.com
to read about her
  • Emily Carr: New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Canada / Vancouver Art Gallery, Douglas and McIntyre | 2006
  • The Laughing One: A Journey to Emily Carr, by SUSAN CREAN, Harper Flamingo, Toronto | 2001
  • The Trouble with Emily, by ROBERT FULFORD, Canadian Art, volume 10, pgs. 32–9. An overview of some of the current debate surrounding Emily Carr. | winter 1993
  • The Art of Emily Carr, by DORIS SHADBOLDT, Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver. A stylistic analysis, still excellent after all these years. | 1979
    Paperback edition | 1987
  • Emily Carr: A Biography, by MARIA TIPPETT, Oxford University Press, Toronto. Much good biographical information. |1979

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

footnotes

1 Emily Carr’s description of herself in a 1934 letter to Eric Brown, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (NGC, Archives 7.1, Carr, E., 19 October 1934)

— Cited in Dear Nan: Letters of Emily Carr, Nan Cheney and Humphrey Toms, by DOREEN WALKER, ed., p. 12, footnote 4, University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver | 1990

2 Carr Papers, unpublished journals, by EMILY CARR

— Cited in Emily Carr: A Biography, by MARIA TIPPETT, p. 78, footnote 42, Oxford University Press, Toronto | 1979

3 For more discussion on this modernist idea of the primitive – developed in the 19th and 20th centuries – see:

— Introduction: Primitivism in art-historical debate, by GILL PERRYIN, Harrison, F. Frascina, Gill Perry , eds., Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century, pgs. 3–9, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut | 1993

— Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives, by MARIANNA TORGOVNIK, University of Chicago Press, Chicago | 1990

— Histories of the Tribal and the Modern, by JAMES CLIFFORD, in his book The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts | 1988

The latter two references were cited in This Woman in Particular: Contexts for the Biographical Image of Emily Carr, by STEPHANIE KIRKWOOD WALKER, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario | 1996

4 The subject of this theme in Canada’s national identity is beyond the scope of this article. However, some useful references may include:

— The Fur Trade In Canada, by HAROLD INNIS, revised, University of Toronto Press, Toronto | 1956

— A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies, by D. TARAS, B. RESPORICH and E. MANDEL, eds., second edition, Nelson Canada, Toronto | 1993

— Identity Through the Other: Canadian Adventure Romance for Adolescents, by C. LARSSON, Umea University, Umea, Sweden | 1996

— The Canadian Novel: A Search for Identity, by M.F. SALAT, B.R. Publishing, Delhi | 1993

— On Being Canadian, by VINCENT MASSEY, J.M. Dent, Toronto | 1948

Looking closely, one can see this theme regularly played out in the popular culture. One example is the extremely successful Molson “I am Canadian” advertisement launched in 2000. Here the traditional joke that Canadians are “wilderness folk” (lumberjacks, fur traders and igloo-dwellers) is simply updated.

5 Klee Wyck, by EMILY CARR, Oxford University Press, Toronto | 1941

6 Klee Wyck, by EMILY CARR, p. 23 | 1941

7 Ibid, p. 23, 26

8 Ibid, p. 24

9 Ibid, p. 25

10 Emily Carr, by MARIA TIPPETT, p. 262 | 1979

11 See, for example, The Art of Emily Carr, by DORIS SHADBOLT, p. 106, Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver | 1979

12 Included among her published works: The Book of Small, Growing Pains, The Heart of a Peacock, The House of All Sorts, Hundreds and Thousands.

13 Doris Shadbolt, who wrote a close study of her stylistic development, concluded that “Carr’s talent was sufficient, though not exceptional; it was her vision that was grand.”

— The Art of Emily Carr, p. 196, Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver | 1979

This view is not universally held.

14 Emily Carr, by MARIA TIPPET, pgs. 18, 23 | 1979

15 Ibid, p. 21

16 Emily Carr went to the Westminster School in England in 1899. She also enrolled in the class of Julius Olsson and Algernon Talmage at St. Ives; then she went on to the art colony in Bushey, Herefordshire in 1902 mid-March (John Whiteley was her teacher). In July 1910, she took a second trip to Europe, this time to Paris and France. She studied under William Phelan “Harry” Gibb, at the Academie Colarossi, and under Duncan Fergusson. Gibb praised her, saying that “if she continued to improve she would undoubtedly become one of the great women painters of her day.” (Emily Carr, by M. TIPPET, p. 91 | 1979) She showed Gibb her Indian watercolour sketches. Gibb, aware of Picasso’s work with primitive African art forms, encouraged her experiments, “assuring her that totems were entirely suitable subjects.” (Ibid, p. 92). Much later, Lawren Harris and Mark Tobey, were influential mentors.

17 The Art of Emily Carr, by D. SHADBOLT, p. 24 | 1979

18 Emily Carr, by ANNE NEWLANDS, p. 18 | 1996

19 Shadbolt’s book effectively punctures that myth, showing definite influences from the artistic traditions and innovations of her day.

20 Emily Carr, by M. TIPPETT, pgs. 73–4 | 1979

21 The Province, Vancouver | 1912

— Cited in Emily Carr, by M. TIPPETT, p. 101 | 1979

22 Emily Carr, by M. TIPPETT, p. 101 | 1979

23 The Province, Vancouver | April 16, 1913

— Cited in Emily Carr, by M. TIPPETT, p. 114 | 1979

24 C.F. Newcombe, quoted in Emily Carr, by M. TIPPETT, p. 110 | 1979

25 The Art of Emily Carr, by D. SHADBOLT, p. 28 | 1979

26 Growing Pains, by EMILY CARR, pgs. 211–2, Centennial edition, Toronto | 1971

27 Emily Carr, [Carr papers, unpublished?], quoted in Emily Carr, by M. TIPPETT, p. 75 | 1979

She was encouraged in this by the Minneapolis artist, Theodore J. Richardson, whom she happened to meet on the trip. He had reputedly been travelling to remote villages by canoe, studying Indian myths and painting their totem poles – and making a good living at it with sales in New York.

— TIPPETT: p. 74

28 Shadbolt says that, in later years, Emily Carr took it for granted that she had always identified with a Canadian theme, but “In reality that interest is apparent in her painting only after her meeting with the eastern artists.”

— The Art of Emily Carr, by D. SHADBOLT, p. 56 | 1979

29 See, for example, A Concise History of Canadian Painting, by DENNIS REID, chapter 10, second edition, Oxford University Press, Toronto | 1988

30 Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr, by EMILY CARR, p. 6: November 17, 1927, Clarke, Irwin, Toronto | 1966

31 Lawren Harris quoted by EMILY CARR in Hundreds and Thousands, p. 8: November 18, 1927 | 1966

32 An Address by Emily Carr, introduction by Ira Dilworth, Oxford University Press, Toronto | 1955

— An address delivered March 4, 1930

33 Emily Carr, quoted in Emily Carr, by A. NEWLANDS, p. 22 | 1996

She wrote this on returning from her eye-opening trip to France: “I could not go back to the old dead way of working after I have tasted the joys of the new.”

— Ibid, p. 18

34 Emily Carr, In Hundreds and Thousands |1966

— Quoted in Emily Carr, by A. NEWLANDS, p. 32 | 1996

35 Emily Carr, In Hundreds and Thousands | 1966

— Quoted in Emily Carr, by A. NEWLANDS, p. 36 | 1996

She wrote this, explaining why she could not paint like Lawren Harris. For her, his theosophical ideas were too small to capture the Sacred Spirit that she felt in the land.

36 For example:

  • The Emily Carr Omnibus, by EMILY CARR, Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver | 1993
  • Flirt, Punk and Loo: My Dogs and I, by EMILY CARR, Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver | 1997
  • Dear Nan: Letters of Emily Carr, Nan Cheney and Humphrey Toms, by DOREEN WALKER, ed., University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver | 1990

37 For example:

POETRY

  • West of Darkness: Emily Carr: a Self-Portrait, by JOHN BARTON, second edition, Beach Holme Publishing, Vancouver | 1999
  • To This Cedar Fountain, by KATE BRAID, Polestar Book Publishers, Victoria, B.C. | 1995
  • Inward to the Bones: Georgia O’Keefe’s Journey with Emily Carr, by KATE BRAID, Polestar Book Publishers, Victoria, B.C. | 1998

ARTISTS

  • The Hornby Suite (homage to Emily Carr), by JACK SHADBOLT, Bau-xi Gallery, Vancouver | 1971

38 For example:

DRAMA

  • Le Voyage magnifique: piece de theatre en dix tableaux dans le nouveau monde et trios voyages dans le vieux monde, by JOVETTE MARCHESSAULT, Lemeac, Montreal | 1990
  • Also translated by L. Gaboriau and published by Talonbooks, Vancouver | 1992

DANCE

  • Brutal Telling: The Emily Carr Project, by JENNIFER MASCALL, choreographer, New York

FILMS and VIDEOS

  • Little Old Lady on the Edge of Nowhere, by NANCY RYLEY, director, National Film Board and Canadian Broadcasting Company | 1978
  • A Woman of All Sorts, by HUGH BEARD, Force Four Productions in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation | 1997
  • Minute by Minute: the Making of a Canadian Mythology, by DAVID GOLDSTEIN, producer; Raymond Charette, director, CRB Foundation | 1998

39 For example:

EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS

  • Emily Carr at Home and at work: Teachers Guide with CDROM, elementary level, British Columbia Heritage, Victoria, B.C. | 1998

JUVENILE LITERATURE

  • Under Emily’s Sky, by ANN ALMA, first edition, Beach Home Publishing, Vancouver | 1997
  • Emily Carr’s Woo, by CONSTANCE HOME, Oolichan Books, Lantzville, B.C. | 1995
  • The Laughing One: A Journey to Emily Carr, by SUSAN CREAN, Harper Flamingo, Toronto | 2001

40 Flirt, Punk and Loo: My Dogs and I, by EMILY CARR, Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver | 1997

41 Journey Without Arrival: A Personal View from Northrop Frye, video recording by VINCENT TOVELL, director, CBC TV, Images of Canada Series, Canadian Broadcasting Company | 1976

See also:

— Six Journeys: A Canadian Pattern, by CHARLES TAYLOR, Anansi Press, Toronto | 1977

— Legendary Canadian Women, by C. McLEOD, studies of famous Canadian women, Lancelot Press, Hansport, Nova Scotia | 1983

— Constructing an identity: the 1952 XXVI Biennale di Venezia and “The project of Canada abroad”, by SANDRA PAIKOWSKY, Journal of Canadian Art History, volume 20, 1/2, pgs. 130–8 | 1999

— The Mystic North: Symbolist Painting in Northern Europe and North America, 1890–1940, by ROALD NASGAARD, Art Gallery of Ontario and University of Toronto Press, Toronto | 1984

— Maple-leaf modernist: the case of Emily Carr, by K. WILKEN, The New Criterion, volume 12, pgs. 26–30 | December 1993

42 For example:

FEMINIST LITERATURE

  • Carr, O’Keefe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own, by SHARYN UDALL, Yale University Press | 2000
  • A Woman’s Fingerprint: Georgia O’Keefe Meets Emily Carr, by KATE BRAID | 1997
  • Emily Carr: the Story of an Artist, by M. ENDICOTT, Women’s Educational Press, Toronto | 1981

43 See, for example:

  • Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art, by STAN DOUGLAS, ed., Talonbooks, Vancouver | 1991
  • The Trouble with Emily, by ROBERT FULFORD, Canadian Art, volume 10, pgs. 32–9 | winter 1993

Other examples of biographical POSTMODERN ANALYSIS:

  • This Woman in Particular: Contexts for the Biographical Image of Emily Carr, by STEPHANIE KIRKWOOD WALKER, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario | 1996
  • Wilderness, Modernity and Aboriginality in the Paintings of Emily Carr, by GERTA MORAY, Journal of Canadian Studies, volume 33, number 2, pgs. 43–65 | summer 1998
  • review article of S. Kirkwood Walker’s This Woman in Particular, review by JANICE HELLAND, Journal of Canadian Art History, volume XVIII, number 2 | 1997

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