For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the work of Canadian painter Emily Carr (1871–1945). Not only do I love her uniquely beautiful painting style, but I admire her amazing courage and pioneering spirit.
Carr was born in Victoria, British Columbia (BC) at a time when women painters were rare, and many believed that painting for women was merely a hobby, a genteel pasttime. They were expected to create “pretty pictures” … small, delicate, detailed and realistic paintings of subjects like flowers and other everyday items.
But, Emily Carr was a nonconformist, and simply couldn’t accept the confines of what society believed constituted art for women in her time. She grew up surrounded by the BC forest: large, imposing, primitive and secretive. She was compelled by the forest, and was deeply inspired by this unique Canadian landscape. She wanted to express this untamed land in a way that had not been done before, and certainly not by a woman. Her need to portray the power of her native landscape was strong, and became a spiritual search for connection throughout her life.
“Search for the reality of each object, that is, its real and only beauty; recognize our relationship with all life; say to every animate and inanimate thing “brother”; be at one with all things, finding the divine in all; when one can do all this, maybe then one can paint.” – Emily Carr, Hundreds and Thousands
Here is a painting of Carr’s entitled: Forest, British Columbia, 1931 – 1932. (Since I am not sure of the copyright of the paintings, I will provide links to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s online gallery of Emily Carr’s works — which is a great place to look at more of her work anyway.)
I remember loving Carr’s work in my twenties, especially after reading her biography by Maria Tippett. But, at the same time, I really didn’t truly connect with her art until I visited Victoria, Vancouver and other BC coastal locations on my own.
When I walked into the sacredness of the old growth forest, it all suddenly made sense. I felt the stillness, the majesty, the grace of the forest. And, I remember being shocked by the vibrant greens in every shade, something we don’t experience as much in Alberta’s open and airy forests of aspens, spruces and pines.
In the coastal forest, the undergrowth is dense, and the trees are large and majestic. Carr’s paintings capture the lovely light and feeling of these spaces, as is evident in this painting Cedar, 1942.
Recently, we had the good fortune of being back in the forest as a family and we were all enthralled by the beautiful coastal forest. These photos show a little glimpse of this vast place.
Carr grew up greatly influenced by the forest, but also by BC’s indigenous coastal First Nations people. In the summer of 1907, a 36-year-old Carr took a trip to Alaska and was instantly drawn to the awe-inspiring sculpture of the totems, house poles and mortuary poles that were part of the everyday expression of life among the coastal people. Sadly, even then, this great culture was beginning to disappear. Carr was moved to sketch and paint these inspirational places and people, and later made many trips along the west coast to integrate these beautiful works of art into her own.
In fact, over a 23 year period — until she was well into her 60s — Carr made many extended trips along the BC coast and into the interior, often going alone and painting for days on end. Much of her art is informed by these experiences, and we have a rich record of coastal villages because of it. This painting Totem Poles, Kitseukla, 1912 is typical of the type of work she created early in this period.
Later, though her style changed to become more modernistic and less structured, she continued to paint the First Nations villages: this painting entitled A Haida Village, 1929, shows this subject in her evolving style.
I love the rich colors and movement of this period of her art, but it is the logistics of what she was doing that I find so inspirational. She often hired native guides to take her to remote spots accessible only by canoe, and drop her off with a few supplies and her painting kit. Then, for the next several days or weeks, she would paint, fish for her food, and maintain her own fire and shelter until the guides returned to get her.
For the time in between, she was on her own: a women in her 40s and 50s, fending for herself. There was no lightweight and waterproof tent, no weather-resistant clothing, no pre-packaged camp foods. In a dense and sometimes unfriendly coastal forest, she was up against the rain, bears or racoons and other hardships — completely reliant on her pluck and courage, and the drive she had to capture the forest on canvas or paper.
But then, if you’ve ever spent time in the coastal forest, you know that the forest gives up its gifts in abundance — like this piece of gnarled tree I came across this year. Being there, I also understood why she returned so often and stayed so long.
Although there is so much more to write about this amazing painter and courageous woman, I will provide a few links for those of you who wish to go deeper, as I have done:
Maria Tippett’s “Emily Carr: A Biography” is a great place to begin.
Susan Vreeland wrote a lovely novel based on the life of Emily Carr called “The Forest Lover”.
Emily Carr herself was an incredibly prolific writer, and left many journals and works of fiction based on her experiences: a list of her books can be found here on the B.C. Heritage website. Her books can also be found in most bookstores.
I will end this article with a photograph I took on the west coast of Vancouver Island many years ago, and a quote by Emily Carr. Although the totem in this photo is not likely done by First Nations people (it seems too modern), it does show the mystery of the beach-side forest, and captures our inherent need to make a mark on our world.
I love the coast, and hope to some day spend more time there. It is a sacred space where color and timelessness meet. In that, I completely concur with Emily Carr:
“There are themes everywhere, something sublime, something ridiculous, or joyous, or mysterious. Tender youthfulness laughing at gnarled oldness. Moss and ferns, and leaves and twigs, light and air, depth and colour chattering, dancing a mad joy-dance, but only apparently tied up in stillness and silence. You must be still in order to hear and see.” – Emily Carr, Hundreds and Thousands