She had no serious role models to follow while growing up, but as a child Emily Carr had experienced the pleasures of drawing and sketching. When she was orphaned in her early teens she persuaded her guardians to permit her at the age of 18 to go to San Francisco to study art at the California School of Design, an art school where instruction followed conservative models of the time. There she learned the basic elements of the craft of painting as it was then taught. She returned home after 2½ years, began painting competent little watercolours, and set up painting classes for children. A study trip to England in 1899 did little to advance her art and was extended by a lengthy illness into 1904, when she returned to Victoria. There she became aware, even in the isolation of her hometown, that the larger world of art encompassed more than the conventional art with which she was familiar and which she herself practised. In 1910, determined to find out what the new art was all about, she gathered up her savings and set out with her sister Alice for France. In Paris she entered classes at Studio Colarossi, but found private study with a British expatriate artist more helpful. Radical experiments in Cubism and other "isms" then being undertaken by Picasso, Braque and other artists in Paris escaped her, but she learned her own bold, colourful, post-impressionist style of painting, which she brought back to Victoria when she returned in 1912.
Even before 1908, when she had visited several southern KWAKIUTL villages, she had shown an interest in the native peoples, in their traditional culture and in their material works - houses, totem poles, masks. The culture was at that time thought to be dying under the waves of white cultural encroachment on native lands, language and practices, and despite her keen interest in native culture Emily Carr shared the prevailing attitude that this was an inevitable process. After her return from France in the summer of 1912, and having announced her intention of making a visual record of native totem poles in their village settings before they should disappear, she made an ambitious 6-week trip to native villages (which by that time had been largely abandoned) in coastal and central northern British Columbia. The drawings and watercolours she made on this and subsequent trips provided the source material for one of the 2 great themes of her painting career: the material presence of the aboriginal culture of the past. Her often adventurous trips in search of this material also led her more deeply into her second great theme - the distinctive landscape of west coast Canada. At times the 2 became so intertwined in her vision as to constitute a theme of their own.
Emily Carr continued to paint in her vivid, painterly "French style" for about 10 years, producing small paintings that would have been seen as advanced in any part of Canada. But it was not the approach that was to lead her into the fullness of her achievement. By 1913 she had produced a substantial body of distinguished work, but dispirited by the absence of effective encouragement and support - which in any case an artistically unsophisticated Victoria would not have been able to accord her - and unable to live by the sale of her art, she built a small apartment house in Victoria for income. She spent most of the next 15 depressing years managing the apartment and painting little.
The period of mature, strong, original work on which Carr's reputation today largely rests commenced when Carr was already 57 years of age. It was triggered by the discovery of her early work on native subjects by an ethnologist carrying out his studies in BC. He drew her paintings of native themes to the attention of authorities at the NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA in Ottawa, who were then in the process of organizing an exhibition of West Coast native art. Carr was invited to participate in the exhibition and was sent a railway pass to go to eastern Canada to attend the opening in November 1927. There she met Lawren HARRIS and other members of the GROUP OF SEVEN painters, then the leading art group in English-speaking Canada, who welcomed her into their company as an artist of their own stature. Their paintings of the rugged landscape of northern Canada impressed her mightily, as did their avowed intention to produce a distinctly Canadian art. She quickly snapped out of her feeling of artistic isolation on the West Coast and returned to painting with renewed ambition, defined goals and a new sense of direction.
Following her success in eastern Canada and with Lawren Harris as mentor (along with some advice from the American artist Mark Tobey of Seattle, who visited Victoria from time to time and had taught briefly in Carr's Victoria studio), she began to paint the bold, formalized canvases with which many people identify her - paintings of native totem poles set in deep forest locations or sites of abandoned native villages. After a year or two, and with Harris's encouragement, she left the native subjects to devote herself to nature themes. From 1928 on, critical recognition and exposure in exhibitions of more than regional significance began to come her way. There was even the occasional sale, though never enough to improve her financial situation. In full mastery of her talents and with deepening vision, she continued to produce the great body of paintings freely expressive of the large rhythms of Western forests, driftwood-tossed beaches and expansive skies. There was a significant break in this continuity when in 1930 she made a trip to New York, where she met Georgia O'Keefe and saw Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase.
In 1937 Carr suffered a first and severe heart attack, which marked the beginning of a decline in her health and a lessening of the energy required for painting. She began to devote more time to writing, an activity commenced many years before and encouraged by Ira Dilworth, an educator and CBC executive. Her first book, Klee Wyck, a collection of short stories of her earlier visits to native villages and her experiences with native people, was published in 1942, a year that also substantially marked the end of her painting career. The book won a Governor General's Award and was followed by the publication of 4 other books, 2 of them posthumously. Printed in more than 20 languages, they are today known in many parts of the world. All of them were essentially autobiographical in nature, portraying a girl and a woman of enormous spirit and individuality. Written in a simple and unpretentious style, they quickly won her the popular audience that her more difficult paintings never really brought her, though it is primarily as a painter that she has won critical acclaim.
More than 50 years after her death Carr has become a Canadian icon, known to many who are not readers or who know nothing of art. She has been and continues to be the subject of books, academic theses, poetry, film and theatre productions; she has survived the depredations of the deconstructionists with her reputation intact. How can we account for her continuing preeminence? She could not be thought of as a careerist, yet her timing, innocent as it was, turned out to be strategic in several respects. Her long preoccupation with the indigenous culture of the Canadian west coast coincided with the beginnings of a rising tide of awareness and confident self-identification on the part of native people who had for some time been considered part of a moribund culture. At the same time, it coincided with a recognition by the dominant society that native issues must be addressed. Carr herself would be harshly criticized for her "appropriation" of native images when the demand for "political correctness" was rampant in the 1980s, though there is no question that her strong projection of those images has served to accentuate her social relevance. In the same way, her passionate involvement with nature and its portrayal coincided with a growing popular awareness of environmental issues and an accompanying sense of loss associated with the disappearance of "nature" in our own day.
The 2 main themes of her work, native and nature, were side doors through which ordinary people could access her presence, but other factors have contributed to her fame. The fact that she was a woman fighting the overwhelming obstacles that faced women of her day and place to become an artist of stunning originality and strength has made her a darling of the WOMEN'S MOVEMENT. As well, the pattern of her career with its delayed start (really not until the age of 57) and late fulfillment projects a personal drama that is humanly very appealing. Still, such considerations sidestep the central fact that it was her qualities as a painter, qualities of painterly skill and vision, that enabled her to give form to a Pacific mythos that was so carefully distilled in her imagination. Even though we may never have visited the West Coast, we feel that we know it through her art. These are also qualities that have carried her forward with admiration and respect through the fading days of modernism into an open and undecided artistic present. Fortunately she came into the full play of her talents and personality at a time when a passionate search for romantic self-expression was critically permitted in art production. In that, too, her timing was strategic.
And into the 21st Century, her timing continues be fortuitous. Certainly, the authenticity and particularity of her self-expression contributed to her national appeal, and in the last two decades this appeal has extended gradually beyond Canada's borders. While we can still claim Emily Carr as a national icon, she has now begun to be appreciated as an important twentieth century artist, as witnessed by her inclusion in several recent major exhibitions. In 2001-2, she was included alongside Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo in a critically acclaimed touring exhibition titled Places of Their Own, Organized and circulated by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and more recently an exhibition of seven of her paintings from the permanent collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery's, were selected for display at dOCUMENTA (13), the prestigious international art showcase held every five years in Kassel, Germany.
Author DORIS SHADBOLT
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Emily Carr At Home and At Work
Extensive site devoted to life, art, and writings of Canadian artist Emily Carr. Click on "New" for the online exhibit "To the Totem Forest." Excellent Canada's Digital Collections site
An extensive online exhibit of Emily Carr paintings depicting First Nations culture in the early 20th century. From Library and Archives Canada.
Watch the Emily Carr Heritage Minute from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
Discover compelling stories about outstanding Canadian artists and some of their monumental works of art. From the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and the Virtual Museum of Canada Teachers' Centre.
This website honours Emily Carr and other exemplary Canadian women artists. Part of the "Celebrating Women's Achievements" series from Library and Archives Canada.
Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design
Vancouver’s renowned Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. View an online graduates’ gallery and access information about the Centre for Art and Technology. Many links to resources for art students.
Emily Carr: Rebel Artist
This review of Kate Braid’s book “Emily Carr: Rebel Artist” is from the "Canadian Review of Materials." For younger readers.
Click on the brief profiles of "extraordinary Canadians" and the authors who wrote about them in this Penguin Group (Canada) series. Also includes bios of artists who created the cover art for each book.
Glossary: Emily Carr
A glossary of terms relating to Emily Carr and her art. From the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Virtual Museum of Canada.
BC 150: Splendour without diminishment
The CBC Digital Archives celebrates B.C.'s sesquicentennial with a look at the people and the events that have shaped its history.
Winds of Heaven
The website for a film about extraordinary Canadian artist Emily Carr, who chronicled the art and culture of British Columbia's First Nations peoples. From White Pine Pictures.
View brief videos from a television series profiling some of Canada's most distinguished Canadians. Click on "Older Posts" at the bottom of the page to see additional videos.