Emily Carr

Emily Carr

BORN: Victoria, British Columbia • 13 December 1871

DIED: Victoria, British Columbia • 2 March 1945

Canadians,” writer Graham MacInnes said, “are not addicts of dancing and light wines, but of hockey and rye whisky,” Emily Carr liked neither light wines, dancing, rye, nor hockey, but her bold paintings, shocking in their use of colour and in their subject matter, proved the truth of MacInnes’ adage.

Her fellow citizens rejected Carr, trashing her work with their hostility, humiliating her with their scorn for art that did not replicate traditional English land¬ scapes. Fifty years later, they’d have killed for one of her paintings.

Carr’s father was English, an adventurer who had headed for the California gold rush but ended up in placid Victoria presiding over a household of nine children on his ten acres of Beacon Hill. After the early deaths of their parents, Carr’s sisters were unsympathetic to the free spirit in their midst, but Emily escaped to art school in San Francisco in her late teens.

There followed further schooling in London, a physical and mental breakdown that confined her to a sanitarium for a long period, and then more training in France. Her French paintings drew only scorn from her sisters and from “critics” in British Columbia, and those of her works that sold brought a derisory $5.

The decisive influence on her art, however, was not her formal schooling but her trips to Ucluelet on northern Vancouver Island, to Alaska, to the Queen Charlottes and the Skeena country. The unselfconsciousness of the Indians fascinated her, and she set herself the task of recording their history before the great totem poles rotted away.

The Indians befriended her, and many ended up with her paintings and sketches in their homes, the art that was unsaleable anywhere in Canada.The ethnographer Marius Barbeau saw the art there, sought out Carr in the small boarding house she ran in Victoria, and drew her work to the attention of the National Gallery in Ottawa.

It was a long time before recognition arrived, however. Turning her back on her art for fifteen unhappy years, Carr dealt with her tenants, raised Old English bobtail sheepdogs, forty at a time, and sold pottery to the tourist market to support herself. But in 1927, when she was already in her late fifties, her art, displayed in Ottawa, at last drew some positive notice in central Canada.

She was bolstered by this attention, and she recovered her old enthusiasm from the interest of the Group of Seven in her work. Lawren Harris, especially, encouraged her to move away from Indian themes towards the British Columbia landscape. Still, there was little local acclaim for her—the burghers of Victoria scorned the fat old lady pushing a baby carriage full of her pet animals, and her art went unadmired—and into the 1940s her canvases could be purchased for as little as $25.

Her first commercial exhibition, in Montreal, did not take place until the year before her death.Nonetheless, each summer after her return from Ottawa and Toronto, Carr headed into the primeval forests in her tiny caravan to paint. She set up her studio, covered by a tarpaulin, in the woods. Accompanied by her pet monkey Woo and her ever-present parrot, her head covered in a cap, she painted with prodigious energy.

Her canvases, full of towering firs, were painted in aggressive swirls of bright colour. When age and heart trouble stopped most of her painting trips, she turned to writing. Her autobiographical accounts of her encounters with natives and of her life in Victoria and Britain won her, perhaps, more renown than her painting, including a 1941 Governor General’s Award for Klee Wyc\, her first book.

Klee Wyck, or “Laughing One,” was her Indian name. No sobriquet was ever less appropriate for a sharp-tongued, difficult woman who burned with resentment at her rejection by stuffy Canadians, though she and her Indian friends, frequently baffled by their futile attempts to communicate across the language barrier, frequently fell into helpless giggling.

Today, Emily Carr’s paintings are so high priced that only the rich can buy them. Her paintings of the British Columbia forest and coast, her studies of decaying Indian villages, still speak powerfully to Canadians who hanker after the wilderness in their souls. “She was not primarily interpreting Canada to the world,” one writer said.

“She was interpreting herself to herself by the symbols which the forest provided.” As Emily Carr herself put it, “I was convinced that the old way of seeing was inadequate to express this big country of ours, her depth, her height, her unbounded wideness, silences too strong to be broken.” She found the new way and, in the process, preserved a Canada that was fast disappearing for her compatriots.