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Six: Emily Carr

Solitary Genius

Forty-three years after her death, the reputations of the complex personality of Emily Carr are numerous: Western Canadaís best-known painter as virtually a textbook example of struggling artist; a memoirist of real charm, individuality, and skill; a traveller whose health broke down when she stayed in two of the worldís most glamorous capitals; an individualist about whom legends, true and false, have multiplied almost continuously since her passing in 1945.

Born in 1871, Emily was the youngest of the five daughters of Richard and Emily Carr, who also had a son. The other children were obedient to their sternly Victorian father, but from her childhood Emily was a disturbing element, always in revolt against authority and discipline. Clearly her fatherís favourite child, Emily went with him everywhere. Her interest in art began when she took lessons once a week at a private school. Her father later found private art lessons for her when she began attending a public school which did not offer art. At the age of nine, she produced a reasonable sketch of her fatherís profile.

An undefined incident between Emily and her father when she was in early puberty permanently soured their relationship and probably had a lifelong effect on her. Whatever it was, her beloved father became an object of utter contempt until his death from a lung ailment in 1888. The full consequences of this possible act of child abuse during an era decades before such things were acknowledged to occur are of course impossible now to measure. Her mother pre-deceased her father by two years, probably from tuberculosis. Emily, aged 18, quit Victoria High School the year after her father died leaving an estate of fifty thousand dollars.

Emily clearly loved art from childhood days on, but she turned to it for a career because she was unhappy at home under her eldest sisterís rule and because it was the one activity which she did well. She went to the California School of Design in San Francisco with a small monthly allowance from their guardian, James Lawson. Her prudery soon deprived her of the best teacher at the school because he used nude models. Without completing her third year, she returned to Victoria when Lawson insisted on it, saying that she had "played at Art" long enough.

She won two first prizes in the Victoria Fall Fair and began to teach art. In the summer of 1898, she journeyed alone by steamer to visit the Ucluelet Indian Band and was struck, having an idealized view of Indians, by their severe economic problems and the current epidemic of German measles and whooping cough. She quickly made friends with those she met. They allowed her to sketch them throughout the summer and she left with a number of drawings and watercolours. On board ship on the way back to Victoria, she met Willam (Mayo) Paddon who would later try very hard to marry her. He found her to be deeply religious and to regret being her familyís "black sheep."

Despite her platonic romance with Mayo, she saved her money from teaching and left the next summer by ship to study further at the Westminister School of Art in the British capital. She dropped her reluctance to paint nude models, now finding them beautiful. The students were more serious than those in California, and she missed San Franciscoís fun. Other students were critical of her because she did not yet smoke and wore dowdy clothes. She met a number of Canadians, and on one memorable occasion rented a canoe with Sammy Blake, son of Edward Blake, the former national leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. "Canada still peeped out of Sammy," Emily noted, evidently both somewhat infatuated with him and having an active disdain for other Canadian visitors who attempted to be more English than the English.

A year later, Mayo came 5000 miles from Victoria to press his marriage proposal, even though she had previously rejected it in a letter. Together they saw London in September; he proposed on average five times a week. The fall term activities and Emilyís cooling toward him soon made him a nuisance. Finally, in December, he left with a thoroughly broken heart. She was also upset for she noted much later, "It does not hurt the killed, it hurts the killer." Towards the very end of her life, she would write to her friend Ira Dilworth words which bitterly describe her only romantic involvements, "Love can be unfair. Iíve been loved furiously and not able to pay back, and Iíve loved furiously with cold response."

After many months of painting the human figure, she began to do landscapes. In 1901, she moved to the Cornish village of St. Yves, already a well known English art colony, where she spent eight months painting the sea, cliffs, beaches and fishermen. In a haunting wood above the village, her love for forest painting began, far from the B.C. rain forests, which she would only conquer gradually during the rest of her life. Unfortunately, her health broke down several months later, and she entered a sanatorium north of London for a 15-month stay, admitted for what is now termed psychoneurosis and was then termed hysteria. Eventually she returned to Victoria after five and a half years abroad.

Overweight and smoking heavily, Emily was lonely in Victoria, and not long afterwards accepted a teaching post at the Vancouver Ladiesí Art Club across Juan de Fuca Strait. Optimism was everywhere in Vancouver as she arrived in 1906, and the absence of an entrenched English 1lite rendered the city far more agreeable to Emily than Victoria. More important, many Vancouverites had become interested in art. Unfortunately, the Ladiesí Art Club was then merely a social club useful for passing time. Emily characteristically would brook no frivolity from her students. She and the club parted after a month, Emily resolving to teach only children in future because they were more pliable. Within a year or so, she had about 75 eager pupils coming to her rented studio and she threw herself into the work. She was also asked to give lessons at what is today Crofton House School for Girls. The students there loved her too. In 1909, she did so well financially that she was able to buy five city lots, but she worried that her teaching was interfering with her own painting. What she did manage to complete, however, won uncritical praise from other prominent artists on the lower mainland.

During a boat trip to Alaska in 1907, she painted her first totem poles and became captivated by the Indian art. Ever afterwards, the "Indian stuff" was to remain, besides forests, a major focus of her artistic expression.

When an experienced American artist, Theodore Richardson, complimented her first piece, she decided to return each summer to paint Indians and their totem poles "before they are a thing of the past." Her paintings have become a precious record of a way of life rapidly disappearing. The next summer, travelling by boat, canoe and stage coach, she painted the Kwakiutl Indians 150 miles north of Vancouver. Emilyís strong temperament was clearly causing her problems in polite Vancouver circles, but she had a moderately successful auction of some of her pieces, which would help with the expenses of a trip to Paris.

Emily and her sister Alice arrived in Paris in the summer of 1910 with a letter of introduction to an English artist, Phelan Gibb. At Gibbís suggestion, she joined the private studio of the Scot John Ferguson, who taught Emily to notice rhythm in nature. Unfortunately she soon drove herself too hard, and suffered further attacks of hysteria and influenza.

After her recovery, Emily joined Gibbís landscape painting class outside the city for four months. It was the highlight of her year abroad. She did quaint villages, farms, and local people. Gibb taught her to juxtapose cold colours with hot to give natural objects greater depth. He also told her that she could become one of the great woman painters of the day. Under him, she grew much artistically and yearned to try out her new techniques on the "bigger material of the West." Just before leaving Paris, she was quite overjoyed to see two of her paintings exhibited in the Salon díAutomne in the Grand Palais just off the Avenue des Champs Elysťes.

If Emily half expected to set the west coast afire with the new techniques of the French impressionists, she was deeply disappointed. Back home, even her sisters and favourite friends turned only icy silence toward the canvases she had done in France. Despite public scorn and poor reviews, however, she opened a studio on West Broadway Avenue in Vancouver and exhibited seventy of her oils and watercolours. Although several visitors gasped at her new indifference to detail and very aggressive colours, a number of pieces were sold. No one in the entire city seemed to realize that the old art order had passed.

She developed an original Post-impressionist style and later adopted some elements of Cubism to express "the bigger things" in nature. By a skilled juxtaposition of colours, and ignoring details when aiming at achieving a light effect that would reveal things in nature not seen by the average person, she achieved her finest pieces. As a leader of creative art, bringing emotion and movement into a scene that no camera could catch, she was half a century ahead of her time, overlooked by most of her contemporaries.

She eloquently defended her new artistic credo: "Pictures should be inspired by nature but made in the soul of the artist.... Extract the essence of your subject and paint yourself into it; forget the little petty things that donít count; try for the bigger side....íí

After further instances of rejection, she journeyed north in 1912 to try her new techniques on her beloved totem poles, and the following winter she moved back to Victoria.

Emily soon entered the lowest period in her entire life as she established a boarding house to provide an income to support her art. She was able to supplement her meagre income a little by selling paintings, but in Victoria the general hostility to her new style remained strong. In 1913 and 1914, she made no trip north and produced few new canvases. As her biographer Maria Tippett puts it, Emilyís life after 1913, her forty-second year, was for the first time no longer dominated by her art but instead by her boarders. "I loathed being a landlady," she said.

When the war finally ended, and the local economy improved, she began to spend more time at painting. In the summer of 1920, she went to the west coast of Vancouver Island to do landscapes and painted briefly in southern British Columbia. In late 1921, Mortimer Lamb, a promoter of Ontarioís Group of Seven artists, viewed and was greatly impressed by her entire personal collection of art. Lamb later wrote about her to Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery in Ottawa. Brown did nothing during the next several years as the National Gallery continued its practice of essentially ignoring Western and Atlantic artists.

Only in the summer of 1927 was Emily finally "discovered" by Brown, during his visit to Victoria in search of pieces for an upcoming exhibition of West Coast Indian art. He was overwhelmed by her sketches, oils and watercolours of Indians, totem poles and Indian villages. The next night, speaking as if he had never heard of Emily Carr before, he told a Victoria audience that their local artistís work was "as good as anything that is being done in the country."

Emily sent 27 watercolours and eleven oil paintings immediately to Ottawa and journeyed east herself by train for the exhibit. Stopping in Toronto, she made one of the most important friendships of her life with the acknowledged leader of the (3roup of Seven, Lawren Harris. It was Harris whose work struck her dumb. His paintings, she noted, played deep "into the vast lovely soul of Canada; they plumbed to her depths, climbed her heights and floated into her spaces."

Brown and Marius Barbeau gave her a royal welcome in Ottawa: teas, dinners, drives. On the glorious day when the exhibit opened, her pieces sparkled. Although only a few people attended the opening, her six-week trip, during which she passed her fifty-sixth birthday, elevated her work to national stature. The leading members of the Group of Seven had accepted her and the National Gallery bought three paintings from the exhibit.

In 1929, accepting Harrisís suggestion that she choose subjects other than totem poles for a year, she began to paint the B.C. forests, feeling for the presence of God in them. Though she never thought of herself as a religious woman in an orthodox sense, she had always carried with her a strong sense of God. She felt that God was always present in the forest and attempted to reach out and up to Him through her paintings. During her spring trip, this time to Nootka Island, she did one of her most famous paintings, Indian Church, and later that summer she painted Grey, depicting a terrible almighty in a vast forest.

No other Canadian has succeeded so well in capturing the deep silence of West Coast forest, the surging rush of living stretches of green and grey and brown, or the towering majesty of trees reaching up to the light. Her forest is silent, dark and awesome in its powerful swirls and strong rhythms. The light is shadowy and slants down the long brown trunks of trees in shifting yellow patterns. Far above, the tree tops sway majestically. Down below it is tangled at its edge with the deep, lush green underbrush bursting with vitality and growth. This was essentially the vision of our western forests which Emily Carr loved and whose essence she caught on her canvases and on paper.

The first years of the Depression were very productive ones. Though the reception of her work in Vancouver remained so cool that she stopped exhibiting there, Victoria and Seattle were much more welcoming. But Emilyís problems were never absent for long. By 1934, her relationships with both the National Gallery and the Group of Seven were deteriorating. When she wrote asking for the return of some watercolours, the Galleryís assistant director, Harry McCurry, demonstrated the procrastination and insolence of office for which officials in every capital are known. She was understandably indignant that for many years the National Gallery owned only three of her paintings, created in 1912.

For two full years after 1933, she refused to send a single piece to exhibitions in Central Canada. In fairness to the Gallery, it did direct her pieces to many exhibitions and the Depression severely reduced its budget.

Predictably, Emily soon turned her cold shoulder to the Group of Seven one by one. She wrote in her journal that for years she had been at the mercy of the East; "Now they are far away and I stand alone on my perfectly good feet," and from now on she would "push with my own power, look with my own eyes." The years 1934-37 were ones of fruition for Emily. Her two surviving sisters, Lizzie and Alice, who for years had remained indifferent to her art, began to show a genuine interest. She gave many showings in her studio, where, if she wished a visitor to stay, she would lower a chair from the ceiling using a rope and pulley.

In the summer of 1933, Emily travelled to Lillooet and Pemberton. Her art was reaching its best. She left her Hill Home apartment for a cottage, where at first she felt very lonely. In 1936 she wrote, "I seem to be enveloped in a dull ache composed of tiredness, homesickness, and loneliness.... I donít feel as if I belonged to a soul or mattered on earth."

Lizzie died and Emily herself had a heart attack in early 1937. News of her illness and critical financial position prompted Eric Brown to arrange to purchase eight of the paintings. Harris and a number of art galleries and individuals also rallied, and provided in all almost $3,000. She could now pay her hospital bills; suddenly she had supporters everywhere.

Emily had become virtually an invalid. Angina and cardiac asthma where now added to all her other health problems: stiff knees, rheumatic hip, partial deafness, weight problems and others. She exhibited frequently in 1937, including a solo exhibit at the Toronto Art Gallery, and her work was compared favourably with even that of Vincent van Gogh. In the fall of 1938, several of her paintings were featured by the National Gallery at a showing in London called "A Century of Canadian Art."

Eric Newtonís review of the exhibition for Canadians included the following passage: "If the word Ďgeniusí (a word to be jealously guarded by the critic and used only on very special occasions) can be applied to any Canadian artist it can be applied to her. She belongs to no school. Her inspiration is derived from within herself. Living among the moist mountains and giant pines of British Columbia, a country climatically different from the rest of Canada, she has had to invent a new set of conventions, a personal style of her own. Where the Eastern Canadians have been content to stylize the outward pageantry of the landscape, she has symbolized its inner meaning and in doing so has, as it were, humanized it."

The next triumph was in Vancouver, where in the fall of 1938 the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibited twenty-nine of her forest scenes. Eleven of them sold. After so many years of neglect, the Gallery wanted Emily, now past sixty-five and in poor health. She continued to work too hard and suffered a slight stroke in the spring of 1939, but was back in the woods at her rented cottage by summer.

Between 1930 and 1940, she made four sketching trips. The quality of her work, however, was worsening and this caused her to become discouraged.

Of Carrís numerous paintings, the ones I find most moving are Indian Church, Grey, and Blunden Harbour. Indian Church, painted on one of her trips to Nootka Island, depicts a one-room church all but engulfed by a primeval forest. A fragile symbol of faith in the form of a white building is set against a towering green tapestry of forest. The contrast of green and white implies an alien element in the woods: manís intrusion into natureís domain. At the same time, Godís presence is sensed in the vast entangled interior of the forest.

Grey is considered one of the most remarkable paintings of Carrís entire career. It is a poetic vision of a forest at night with the dark tree forms and a faint light glowing from an opening in the central conical tree. The mood is inviting yet fearful, with an almighty spirit strongly implied in the vast forest.

Blunden Harbour is an excellent portrayal of the spirit of the totem poles which project feelings of mystical proportions. The powerful, inscrutable figures of the poles against the harmony of the sky, water and hills face the unknown in a timeless confrontation.

Carr is now recognized also as a remarkable Western Canadian writer. Her diaries, entitled Hundreds and Thousands and published twenty years after her death, made it clear that her desire to express herself in words came early. She was always attracted to writing. When she was a student she would make up little rhymes about her friends and illustrate them with pen-and-ink drawings.

In her sketch sack, when she was leaving for field trips, she always carried a notebook. She used an interesting technique, "wording," as a means of clarifying her thoughts before painting. She insisted that it was the handling of thoughts, rather than the handling of paint, which overwhelmed her. In her notebook she explained to herself why she wanted to paint a particular subject: what attracted her to it, and what meaning in the subject she was trying to express. She found that this system -- an articulation in words, as well as in colour and form -- gave her a double approach to her subjects which she found helpful.

Her approach to painting and to writing was similar. In writing, she stuck to two guiding principles; first, to get to the point as directly as possible, and second, never to use a big word where a little one would do. She was persuaded, correctly as it turned Out, that while her mechanics and spelling were poor that if she were "ultra-honest, ultra-true, some deep realizing of life" would overcome other writing deficiencies. She spoke many times in her diaries of the difficulties she had to overcome in writing. "Thereís words enough, paint and brushes enough and thoughts enough. The whole difficulty seems to be getting the thoughts clear enough, making them stand still long enough to be fitted with words and paint. They are so elusive, like wild birds singing above your head, twittering close beside you, chortling in front of you, but gone the moment you can put out a hand. If you ever do catch hold of a piece of thought it breaks away leaving the piece in your hand just to aggravate you."

Sincerity and honesty are closely related characteristics of her writing. She believed that an artist must speak clearly to people in terms of her own actual experience, enriched with the spirit and the soul. "Be careful that you do not write or paint anything that is not your own, that you donít know in your own soul. You will have to experiment.... But donít take what someone else has made sure of Consequently, Carrís literary style is characterized by complete independence, a great simplicity and directness. Her written words are the equivalent of the brisk, sure brush strokes and splashes of dramatic, strong colours which are so characteristic of her canvases.

Writing was both less physically difficult than painting and less likely to lead to criticism because she originally wrote with no thought of publishing. When her health prevented trips to the forests, Emily turned to writing with zest. She wrote Klee Wyck, about her youthful years of travels among Indians, and then The Book Of Small. "Small" was the name Emily gave herself when she was a child; this book brought to life her recollections of Victoria in the late years of the last century. Her next book, The House of All Sorts, presented a bitter picture of her life as a boarding-house manager, when she struggled to make ends meet and tried to cope with the petty details of running a boarding house.

Maria Tippett notes that most of her writing was done between the ages of sixty-three and seventy-one: "[Her stories] have in common many characteristics -- crotchetiness, alienation, exaggeration and sentimentality -- that had always been part of her personality but had become more pronounced in her old age."

Of her writings Tippett says, "One feels her intense love for the West Coast in her evocative descriptions of the scent of salt air, the sting of campfire smoke in the eyes, the push of growth in the tangled forest, or the forestís overwhelming silence. Emily makes the reader share not only the things she loved but her dislikes -- the thoughtlessness of tenants, the hypocrisy of the English, the cruelty of her sisters -- all of which she was able to treat comically. Finally, she reveals herself in her stories: her morality, her sentimentality, her prejudices, her love of nature, even her meanness and the childlike side of her character, all are present."

The recognition of Carr as a writer came even before her full acceptance as a painter. Klee Wyck, made up of sketches written at various times when she penetrated forests and visited Indian villages on the British Columbia coast, was a great success. "Klee Wyck" was the name the Indians gave Emily at Ucluelet. It meant "Laughing One" and was given to her not because, in the words of Ira Dilworth, "she laughed a great deal -- as she herself would say, there is not much of a giggle in her. But her laughter in Ucluelet went out to meet the Indians, taking the place of words, forming a bond between them. They felt at once that the young girl staying in the missionariesí house understood them and they accepted her."

Both Macmillan and Ryerson presses initially rejected Klee Wyck for publication, but Ira Dilworth, the regional director of the CBC in Vancouver, was so impressed by her stories that he broadcast some of them in 1940. He also succeeded in persuading Oxford University Press to publish Klee Wyck. The first printing, dedicated to her Indian friend Sophie Frank, sold out. The Womenís Canadian Dub of Victoria celebrated the publication on Emilyís seventieth birthday. Congratulatory letters arrived at the gathering from many people, including the B.C. premier and Lieutenant Governor. The B.C. Indian Commissioner thanked her on behalf of the Native people. Emily herself was above all grateful to Dilworth. Like her, says Tippett, he was deeply religious, proud of being a Western Canadian and resentful of Central Canadian dominance of the country. The two of them opened up to each other fully, mostly by letter, and he outlined his inner thoughts, including his concern about head office control of the regional CBC. Both were ecstatic when Klee Wyck won the Governor Generalís Award for non-fiction in 1942. Dilworth remained her most loyal friend and continued to edit her writing.

There were three further books. Growing Pains, about her youth, appeared in 1946. Pause: A Sketch Book, about her period in the sanatorium, came Out in 1933. The Heart of a Peacock, more Indian and bird sketches, was published in 1953. When Dilworth, her literary trustee, died in 1960 only a portion of her writings had been released, and in 1966 a new literary executor published a selection of her journals as Hundreds and Thousands. The notebooks were as she said, "to jot me down in, unvarnished me, old at fifty-eight." There she poured out her private thoughts, doubts and inspirations. The form a revealing self-portrait depicting an artist often tired and discouraged yet always honest and true to her ideals, and a lonely woman.

In the early spring of 1942, Emily sketched the forest again at Mount Douglas Park near Victoria and later produced a number of oils. She was rushed to the hospital with a clot on her heart and later moved to a nursing home. Recovering in hospital she wrote:

"I must go home and go sketching in the woods. They still have something to say to me." She was in fact preparing for her end from 1942 on. She asked a friend, Carol Pearson, to bury a number of personal items in Victoriaís Beacon Hill Park that year: they were never recovered afterwards. She gave away many of her art pieces as gifts. At Lawren Harrisís suggestion, she set aside forty-five paintings for Western Canadians. Dilworth and Hams, as trustees of the Emily Carr Trust, chose the pieces with her assistance. As Tippett says, "the public was informed that Miss Emily Carr had given the paintings to the nation, or more specifically to the Vancouver Art Gallery, on permanent loan." In her will, she also indicated that some of her paintings should be sold to provide for a scholarship fund "to enable art students residing in British Columbia to study art at some school or art schools to be selected by the trustees." Dilworth was made her literary trustee and Harris and Willie Newcombe her artistic ones.

Her affairs settled, and the University of British Columbia wanting to give her an honorary degree at their May, 1945 convocation, she died on March 2nd, 1945 of yet another clot on her heart.

Today, 43 years after her death, Emily Carr enjoys the recognition and admiration that eluded her during her lifetime. Her artistic bequest constitutes another chapter in the history of our cultural heritage. So uniquely "Western" in spirit and determination, she eventually succeeded in passing to Canadians from all parts of the country her artistic vision of the great West -- her West.

Above everything else, Emily Carr was a truly great British Columbian and Western Canadian. "I am a Westerner," she wrote, "and! am going to extract all that I can to the best of my small ability out of the big glorious West." It was her single purpose to share and express through her art the experiences of her life in the West she loved. "There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness, the western breath of go-to-the-devil-if-you-donít-like-it, the eternal big spaceness of it. Oh the West! Iím of it and I love it."

She was not interested, as she said in one of her books, in the stories brought by the people from their trips to the Old Country, as she found that "These wild, western things excited me tremendously. I did not long to go over to the Old World to see history, I wanted to see now what was out here in our West. I was glad Father and Mother had come as far west as the West went before they stopped and settled down."

"I want my work to be typically Western," she said, and consequently all her life she tried to make "western places speak" to people who were to see her paintings or read her books. With courage and devotion, she continued to dispel the absurd myth that the West was unpaintable.

"Oh, just let them open their eyes and look! It isnít pretty. Itís only just magnificent, tremendous. The oldest art of our West, the art of the Indians, is inspirit very modern, full of liveness and vitality. They went far and got so many of the very things that we modern artists are striving for today."

Ira Dilworth captured the greatness of this amazing woman when he said, "I am convinced that Emily Carr is a great genius and that we will do well to add her to that small list of originals who have been produced in this place and have lived and commented in one way or another on this Canada of ours."


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