Emily Who?

The Reputation ...
The Work ...
The Woman ...

The Reputation

In paint and words, Emily Carr casts a tall shadow. As a woman interpreting British Columbia in a bold and inimitable way, bringing modern art to the Americas, she has become a national treasure...in Canada.

Emily Carr:Strait of Juan de Fuca

Emily Carr, "Strait of Juan de Fuca," oil, McMichael Collection of Canadian Art.

Public Domain/Copyright

In Canada, she has been the subject of countless scholarly articles, several biographies, at least five art historical books, four documentary films, a handful of plays, a musical, a ballet, an opera, poetry, songs, and even a puppet show. Her work commands an entire floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery, she is represented in all of Canada's major art museums and in the Tate Gallery in London, and a recent auction sold her 1912 canvas, War Canoes, Alert Bay, for over one million. Her stories of life among the indigenous peoples of British Columbia are frequently used in Canadian schools.

Despite all of these ways Canadians might know her, Emily Carr's reputation has hardly crossed the southern Canadian border. Why hasn't it, when fertile comparisons mount up to support a broader recognition? Her totem poles in forests are icons of her beloved Northwest as surely as Georgia O'Keeffe's cow skulls in deserts are icons of O'Keeffe's beloved Southwest. In the swirling skies and swaying trees of Emily Carr's later paintings, we see the strokes of Vincent van Gogh. Carr's conviction that all living creatures, human and otherwise, are eternal expressions of the one Life echoes Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass was her constant companion. The natural, wild places in British Columbia informed her painting the same as the natural, wild places in the Lake District of England shaped William Wordsworth's poetry.

She's been called Canada's Georgia O'Keeffe and the WASP Frida Kahlo, The Different Victorian, The Rebel Artist. First Nations people in British Columbia have named her Klee Wyck, Laughing One. I hope, through this novel, to add one more name to the others: Hailat, Person with Spirit Power in Her Hands.

The Work

Of the three grandes dames of modern painting in the Americas, Emily Carr, George O'Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo, Carr was the earliest, having her first solo exhibitions in 1912 and 1913, while O'Keeffe had hers in 1917, and Kahlo, who didn't paint her first oil until 1926, exhibited in her first group show in 1931. In near isolation, Carr produced an enormous body of work that is evocative and startling even today.

Emily Carr: Forest British Columbia

Emily Carr, "Forest, British Columbia," oil, 1932, 130 x 86.8 cm, Vancouver Art Gallery, VAG 42.3.9. © Vancouver Art Gallery

Beginning in 1906 with her return from London where women were taught only watercolor, the appropriately delicate medium for lady painters, The Forest Lover narrates her discovery of her artistic source in her home province of British Columbia, and her subsequent confrontation with the male art bastion in Paris where gender inequity and her inability to speak French made it nearly impossible to get helpful critiques. From the France of 1910-11, when the art world was bursting into modernism, she brought home a variety of new ways of seeing and painting. The years following show her independently developing her own deeply personal style, based on intuitive sensitivity rather than academic technique. She exhibited her work in Vancouver and Victoria at a time when the majority culture was intent on subduing indigenous cultures and the Northwest forests, and on criticizing those who attempted anything unconventional in the arts, as she did.

A perusal of her paintings from 1908 to the late 1930's in Paintings and Passages on this site will show the development of her style from the conventional to the utterly original, from detailed and decorative renderings of totem poles true to their ethnographic integrity, to haunting, personally expressive images of simplified, sculptural totem shapes integrated into the natural landscape. After nine trips to paint thirty First Nations villages in twenty-three years, she slowly turned away from Native iconographic motifs, not out of diminished love for them but out of her own increasing difficulty to get to the sites where the totems stood. Roughly concurrent with this, she began to feel an intensified desire to express her own deep feelings for the British Columbia landscape. It was then that she began to paint pure forest. The degree to which the strong totemic shapes of poles influenced Carr is seen not only in her early paintings of the poles themselves, but in her later paintings of the solid, impenetrable forest which she shows us as if it had been carved in paint as surely as her Native counterpart carved in cedar.

According to art historian Sharyn Udall, curator of the exhibition, Carr, O'Keeffe, and Kahlo: Places of Their Own, "Emily Carr experienced an ecstatic identification with the spirit of nature, particularly as she found it in British Columbia... To speak of Emily Carr's trees is to seize on the central subject of her work, both as metaphor and form."* Smithsonian calls her paintings of trees, "emotional explosions."**

Carr went through periods of painterly Post-Impressionism, to Fauve color handling, then flirted with Cubism, and matured as an expressionistic interpreter of her beloved Northwest. As she sought to paint the spirit of a thing instead of just a thing, her paintings became either more abstract, or mysterious and other-worldly. In her last body of work, she arrived at energetic sweeps of unpeopled landscape, impassioned seascapes, dramatic skyscapes vibrating with movement. She never lost the longing to be worthy of her subject. In the final analysis, the journey brought her recognition as a major force in North American art of the twentieth century.

The Woman

If Emily Carr were simple or one dimensional, her life and her contribution would not be wrangled over by scholars and cultural commentators as they are. She embodied a complexity of urges, and for that reason, no one introduced to her can dismiss her easily. She takes hold of a person, and won't let go.

Passionately committed to her art, a lover of wild places who saw with great intensity of feeling, Emily was independent, strong willed, and fiercely energetic. The tasks she set for herself demanded nothing less. Yet she was also cantankerous, peevish, hotly intolerant of hypocrisy, narrowness, and prejudice. She was an intentional outsider, almost a misanthrope, yet a lover of those in the margins of society.

Emily Carr: Self Portrait

Emily Carr, "Self-Portrait," oil on paper, 1938-39, National Gallery of Canada.

Public Domain/Copyright

These characteristics naturally brought her into conflict with three forces antagonistic to her leanings: a culture that discouraged artistic vitality or experimentation in women, a pious family dominated by rigid proprieties, and the conventional mores of late-Victorian society.

Despite these counterweights, she challenged the prohibitions of her family by crossing the invisible line into Native culture. She engaged in a rare cross-cultural friendship with a Squamish basket maker, a relationship unacceptable in Victoria's polite white society in the early twentieth century, traveled alone by canoe, steamship, trading scow, and wagon, slept in a tent, in mission houses and grave houses in isolated Native villages at a time when tribal culture was being crushed, and even attended illegal potlatches raided by the Provincial Police.

She experienced everything with uncommon intensity, a factor which fueled her frenzied periods of enormous output, yet contributed to her self-doubt which led to a lengthy and marked slowdown--some would call it a regenerative hiatus--in her painting. Nevertheless, she pulled herself up out of depression, came to ignore public disregard, surrounded herself with pets, sang hymns to her half-finished paintings out in the forest, and, at fifty-seven, won her way to her most productive and original period of painting, producing the works for which she is most known. And always, always, she was seeking.

Carr looked for answers to questions of life, soul and God from many sources--the Bible, despite her early intolerance of scripture readings being forced upon her in a pious household; the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, particularly striving to emulate his thoughts in "Self Reliance;" the poetry of Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass, which encouraged her to see a universal God in all life; works of Theosophy and Buddhism, as introduced to her by the painter Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven, though she ultimately rejected them as too abstract in not incorporating God and Christ; Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the textbook of Christian Science, by Mary Baker Eddy; and the teachings of Raja Singh. All of these sources, together with what she observed from Native cultures, combined to help her define her own personal spiritual foundation which served as the basis for her mature work, and as the source of her strength.

Imagine her, after two heart attacks and a stroke, pushing herself around on the butter crate scoot box she'd made herself in order have the mobility to keep painting. A few years before her death in 1945 at age 74, she was asked what had been the outstanding events of her life. She responded, "...work and more work!...loving everything terrifically...The outstanding event to me is the doing--which I am still at. Don't pickle me away as a done."***

*      Sharyn Udall, Carr, O'Keeffe, and Kahlo: Places of Their Own, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000, p. 145.

**    Bennett Schiff, "Canada's National Treasure," Smithsonian, March 1999.

***  As reported by Ira Dilworth in his Foreword to Klee Wyck. Toronto/Vancouver, Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1941.

In addition, for The Forest Lover as well as for this website, I wish to express gratitude for these valuable sources:

Blanchard, Paula The Life of Emily Carr. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.

Crean, Susan. The Laughing One: A Journey to Emily Carr. Toronto: Harper Collins Canada, 2001.

Moray, Gerta. Northwest Coast Native Culture and the Early Indian Paintings of Emily Carr, 1899-1913. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1993.

Shabolt, Doris. The Art of Emily Carr. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1979.

Shabolt, Doris. Emily Carr. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1990.

Tippett, Maria. Emily Carr: A Biography. Oxford Univ. Press, 1979; Penguin Canada, 1982.

For a complete list of works consulted, please see the Bibliography.