Painter, writer, cartoonist, potter, spinster, animal lover, and eccentric, Emily Carr was one of Canada's great artists. Her paintings embody the lush rainforests of coastal British Columbia where she (and I) grew up, and her sensitive portrayals of native art in the villages of its makers helped to capture living images of disappearing lifeways. Her autobiographical writings, while not strictly factual, provide amusing and lively accounts of a woman who railed against the strictures of the Victorian colonial society in which she lived.
The Book of Small
Emily was born in the beautiful little town of Victoria in 1871, the second youngest of nine children. She called herself "Small" because she was the youngest of the daughters. Her father, a sailor turned shopkeeper, was a strict disciplinarian, and Emily chafed at the strictures that he imposed on her, just as she would against authority figures all her life. Luckily he was also interested in art and aesthetics and encouraged Emily to develop her artistic talent. After he died, when she was fourteen - she had lost her mother at twelve - a drawing done by Emily, age six, was found among his papers.
After her father's death Emily refused to return to high school and began to study art with two other girls. When her schoolmates left to pursue their studies in England, Emily begged her eldest sister Dede to allow her to go, but she was refused. Finally, Emily petitioned her guardian, lawyer James Lawson, for permission to continue with her studies, and he allowed her to enroll in the California School of Design in San Francisco. Emily studied at the school from 1890 to 1893, till her guardian told her she had "played at art" too long and had to come home. Though she learned a lot, she later said the paintings she brought home from that time were humdrum and unemotional.
Back in Victoria Emily set up a studio in the old barn behind the family house where she painted and gave art classes. In 1898 she made a trip up-island to a native village, Ucluelet, sketching totem poles and longhouses. Such forays would later become an integral part of her life, and some of her most moving paintings are of the natural and tribal landscape of coastal BC.
By 1899 Emily had saved enough money to go to London, England, where she again took up art studies, this time at the Westminster School of Art. But she wasn't happy at the school and suffered from a breakdown; she spent 1903-4 in a sanitorium convalescing before returning to Victoria.
During the next several summers Emily travelled to northern Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands, where she lived in Indian villages and painted. She worked as a cartoonist for the local papers and spent a period teaching in Vancouver, and by 1910 had again saved enough money to travel and study.
This time she went to Paris with her sister Alice and enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, but within a month had another breakdown, brought on by the stress of self-doubt, overwork, and inability to speak French. After three months in hospital, Alice and Emily went to Sweden to recuperate; back in Paris, they avoided the cities, and Emily was much happier tramping about the countryside painting. She dabbled in fauvism and cubism, and even had two paintings exhibited at the ninth Salon d'Automne of 1910.
Emily had learned some important things: she had some talent, and she felt much happier away from big cities and close to nature. After fourteen months in France, Alice and Emily returned to Victoria. Though Emily exhibited her French paintings and those she had done in BC, the public was not receptive to her bold and brooding style.
House of All Sorts
By 1913, Emily realized that she could not support herself with her art, and she returned to the family home. She built a boarding house on the property, planning to live on the second floor and rent out two suites on the ground floor, but somehow the rent she received was never enough to make ends meet, and she was forced to subdivide the second floor too. She tried lots of other things to make money such as raising dogs and rabbits, cultivating vegetables and fruit trees, and making pottery with native motifs. She later wrote that during this fifteen-year period she didn't paint at all.
In 1927 Emily was invited by Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery, to come to Ottawa for an exhibition. While there she met the great painter Lawren Harris, and the friendship of Harris and Brown, coupled with the encouragement of Harris' peers The Group of Seven, gave Emily renewed confidence in her painting abilities. Harris and Brown also encouraged her to put pen to paper and record some of her experiences, and she began studying journalism and writing sketches which would, in time, become autobiographical books.
Over the next fifteen years Emily would travel often to the First Nations villages she had visited when younger, producing some of her finest paintings. She would pack up her dogs and pet monkey Woo and undertake arduous journeys to northern Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlottes, where she would set up a trailer she had bought and dubbed "The Elephant", and paint all day. At first she painted native artworks, but after a few years changed her focus, perhaps drawing inspiration from her own deeply felt connection to the natural environment around her.
There are stylistic similarities between Emily's paintings and those of some of the Group of Seven, particularly Harris', but Emily's approach and output were unique. Motivated in large part by poverty, she eschewed expensive painter's canvases, instead using manila paper painted over with white house paint; she mixed her oil paints with gasoline to make them stretch. Today we can lament these choices born of necessity, for the inferior materials she was forced to use are causing her paintings to deteriorate. But what really sets her apart is her ability to convey he deep spiritual understanding of the Pacific Northwest: the dense green evergreen forests, the sweeping skies, the violent storms, are all rendered beautifully under Emily's brush. If you're ever in Vancouver I urge you to visit the Vancouver Art Gallery, where some of her most powerful paintings are housed; to see them is to understand something of the majesty of the natural world that she loved so much.
The Heart of a Peacock
Emily was in ill health much of her life and as an adult was quite overweight. In 1936 she sold her boarding house and moved into a bungalow, and the next year had a heart attack, followed by another two years later. Ironically, during this period when she was too ill to travel, she was finally gaining the recognition she deserved, and she had successful solo exhibitions in Toronto and Vancouver.
And she branched out into a new field that some feel she excelled at even more than visual arts. Forced to spent much of her time in bed, she turned her mind to writing; she published her first work in 1941, just after she had suffered a stroke. The fact that she was writing autobiographical books many years after the events she was chronicling may help explain why they are not strictly factual. That, and artistic license.
After another heart attack in 1942, Emily moved in with her sister Alice, and in 1945 she moved a final time, to what is now the James Bay Inn, where she died, aged 74, after a final fatal heart attack. She had lived, not an easy life, but a full and productive one.
Emily's old house in Victoria is a museum now, but I can't vouch for its value; it was closed for renovations when I tried to visit there last month. Fittingly, though, the art college in Vancouver is named after this great Canadian artist.
Books by Emily Carr:
- Klee Wyck (1941), about her contact with First Nations peoples; its title means "Laughing One", which is what the people of Ucluelet called her, and she won a Governor General's prize in literature for this book
- The Book of Small (1942), about her childhood
- House of All Sorts (1944), about her experiences as a landlady
- Growing Pains (1946), an autobiography
- The Heart of a Peacock (1953), vignettes, many about Woo, her pet monkey
- Pause: a sketchbook (1953), sketches and short stories about her sojourn in a sanatorium
- Hundreds and Thousands (1966), excerpts from her journals
- The Complete Writings of Emily Carr (1997)