Emily Carr



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A part of our heritage...


"There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wilderness, the Western breath of go-to-the-devil-if-you-don't-like-it, the eternal big spaceness of it. Oh the West! I'm of it and I love it!" "Contrary from the start" was the way Emily Carr described herself in her autobiography. She was a naughty child, an impatient and rebellious young girl, and a young woman who scorned the tidy conventions of the very proper Victorian society of Victoria, British Columbia. Indeed, until the end of her life she flouted the accepted conventions of the day, and was regarded as being a very eccentric individual.

It was, however, Emily Carr's originality of mind and her fierce and independent spirit which provided the basis of her magnificent paintings - works which document her long process of personal discovery, and express the mood, the mystery and the soul of the West Coast. Although she traveled and studied abroad, it was her birthplace which inspired the two great themes of her work: the native culture of the Pacific Coast, and the power of nature expressed in images of rain-forests and seascapes.

Victoria in the 1870s was not a nurturing environment for an artist. As part of her social education, young Emily Carr was allowed to take drawing and water-colour lessons. Painting was considered a pleasant middle-class female activity, but not something to be taken up as a serious profession. Nevertheless, in 1890, Carr won permission from her guardian to enroll in the California School of Design. Four more years of study in London honed the edges of her talent but did not strike the sparks to ignite her passion.

It was not until Emily Carr returned to Victoria that she found her real inspiration. Packing up her paint box and easel, she began venturing out to explore the remote coastal settlements that could only be reached by boat. The intense art of the ancient totem poles moved her deeply. She felt a kinship with the native people, seeing in their separation from dominant society a parallel to her own isolation. She also found that the Natives accepted her easily into their homes and lives. On one visit to Ucluelet, a small community on the western side of Vancouver Island, Carr received the name Klee Wyck, or Laughing One.

In 1910 Carr took her savings and went to Paris to find out about "the new art" of the Post-Impressionists. What she found were "brilliant luscious clean paintings," in a style full of emotion and movement. Back in Canada, she opened a studio in Vancouver and exhibited her European work. But there was no encouragement, no sales, and no pupils. Defeated, she returned to Victoria, where for the next fifteen years she turned her creative talents to writing books. In order to survive she ran a boarding-house and raised dogs.

An invitation to a 1927 exhibition of West Coast Indian art in Ottawa was a turning point in Emily Carr's life. She was fifty-six when she went to Ontario and met the eastern Canadian painters of The Group of Seven.

"Their works call to my very soul," she wrote in response. "They are big and courageous. I know they are building an art worthy of our great country, and I want to have my share, to put in a little spoke for the West, one woman holding up my end." With new faith in her old vision, Carr took up her painting again, concentrating on the forest landscape, contrasting its grand primeval gloom with spiritual essence of the light.

"Woods and skies out west are big," she said. "You can't squeeze them down." For her last eighteen years, Emily Carr brought the images of energy and life that she found in the wild into hundreds of drawings and canvases.

Heritage Minute Cast
Older Carr   Bette Thompson
Younger Carr   Roslyn Prieco
Additional Cast   Katherine Trowell