Emily Carr December 13, 1871 – March 2, 1945 was a Canadian artist and writer heavily inspired by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. One of the first painters in Canada to adopt a post-impressionist painting style, Carr did not receive widespread recognition for her work until later in her life. As she matured, the subject matter of her painting shifted from aboriginal themes to landscapes, and, in particular, forest scenes. As a writer, Carr was one of the earliest chroniclers of life in British Columbia. The Canadian Encyclopedia describes her as a “Canadian icon”.
Born in Victoria, British Columbia in 1871, the year British Columbia joined Canada, Emily Carr was the second-youngest of six children born to English parents Richard and Emily Saunders Carr. The Carr home was on Birdcage Walk, (now Government Street) in the James Bay district of Victoria, a short distance from the legislative buildings (nicknamed the ‘Birdcages’) and the town itself. Her father encouraged Emily’s artistic inclinations, but it was only in 1891, after her parents’ deaths, that Carr pursued her art seriously. The nearest proper art school was in San Francisco, California, where Carr attended the San Francisco Art Institute for two years (1890 – 1892) before returning to Victoria.
In 1898 Carr made the first of several sketching and painting trips to aboriginal villages, visiting Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, home to the Nuu-chah-nulth people, then commonly known to English speaking people as ‘Nootka’. The following year Carr traveled to London where she studied at the Westminster School of Art. She traveled also to the artistic colony in Cornwall, returning to British Columbia in 1905, where she took a teaching position in Vancouver at the ‘Ladies Art Club’ that she held for four years. Vancouver at that period was experiencing an economic boom, buoyed by the success of the lumber and fishing industries, and taking advantage of its position as the Pacific terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and had roared ahead of the provincial capital, Victoria, in population and economic activity.
While on holiday to Alaska with her sister Alice in 1907, Carr again came into contact with indigenous peoples in remote villages and determined to use her art to document the sculptural and artistic legacy of the aboriginal people that she encountered. Still determined to further her knowledge of the rapidly evolving trends, in 1910 Carr returned to Europe, this time to Paris to study at the Academie Colarossi. Influenced by the post-impressionists and the fauvists, Carr returned to British Columbia and exhibited her French paintings.
In the summer of 1912 Carr again traveled north, to the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Skeena River, where she documented the art of the Haida, Gitxsan and Tsimshian. At Cumshewa, a Haida village on Moresby Island, Carr painted a carved raven that she later turned into her iconic painting “Big Raven”. “Tanoo”, another painting inspired by work gathered on this trip, depicts three totems before house fronts at the village of the same name. On her return to the south Carr organized an exhibit of some of this work, and delivered a lengthy and detailed lecture about the aboriginal villages that she had visited which ended with her mission statement:
I glory in our wonderful west and I hope to leave behind me some of the relics of its first primitive greatness. These things should be to us Canadians what the ancient Briton’s relics are to the English. Only a few more years and they will be gone forever into silent nothingness and I would gather my collection together before they are forever past.
There had been some positive reaction to her work, even in the new ‘French’ style. However, according to her own recounting in Growing Pains, Carr’s perception of the reaction in Vancouver to her work and new style was not positive, and Carr determined to give up teaching in Vancouver and return to her home town, Victoria, where several of her sisters still lived. It was during this period, about 15 years in duration, that Carr did little painting, running a boarding house known as the ‘House of All Sorts’, which would provide the source material for a book of the same name. Her circumstances straitened and her life in Victoria circumscribed, Carr’s paintings of this period drew their inspiration from local scenes: the cliffs at Dallas Road, the trees in Beacon Hill Park. Her own assessment of the period was that she had ceased to paint, which was not strictly true, although “[a]rt had ceased to be the primary drive of her life.”
Breton church, oil on canvas, 1906Over time Carr’s work had come to the attention of several influential and supportive people, including Marius Barbeau, prominent ethnologist at the National Museum in Ottawa. Barbeau, in turn, persuaded Eric Brown, Director of Canada’s National Gallery to visit Carr in 1927. Brown invited Carr to exhibit as part of an exhibition on West Coast aboriginal art at the National Gallery. Carr sent 26 oil paintings east, along with samples of her pottery and rugs with indigenous designs. The exhibit, which included works by Edwin Holgate and A.Y. Jackson traveled to Toronto and Montreal. The following spring Carr herself traveled east, timing her journey so that she would be able to meet members of the Group of Seven, at that time Canada’s most recognized modern painters. This encounter was to change the direction of Carr’s artistic life, reinvigorating her sense of purpose and ending the terrible artistic isolation of the previous 15 years. Lawren Harris became a particularly important support. “You are one of us,” he told Carr, welcoming her into the ranks of Canada’s leading modernists despite her own self-deprecating attitude. Carr was influenced not only by Harris’ work, but also by his belief in theosophy, which Carr struggled to reconcile with her own conception of God.
Carr continued throughout the late 1920s and 1930s with trips away from Victoria. Her last trip north was in the summer of 1928, when she made a trip to the Nass and Skeena Rivers, as well as to the Queen Charlottes. She travelled to Friendly Cove and the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, and then up to Lillooet in 1933. Recognition of her work grew steadily, and she was exhibited in London, Paris, Washington and Amsterdam, as well as major Canadian cities.
In 1939 Carr suffered a serious heart-attack, and moved in with her sister Alice. Her focus shifted from her painting to her writing. With the assistance of her friend Ira Dilworth, principal of Victoria High School, Carr was able to see her first book, Klee Wyck, published in 1941. Carr was awarded the Governor-General’s Award for non-fiction the following year for Klee Wyck. Carr died in Victoria on March 2, 1945, shortly before she was to have been awarded an honourary doctorate by the University of British Columbia.
Odds and Ends, by Emily Carr (1871-1945).Carr is remembered primarily for her painting. She was one of the first artists to attempt to capture the spirit of Canada in a modern style. Previously, Canadian painting had been mostly portraits and representational landscapes. Carr’s main themes in her mature work were natives and nature: “native totem poles set in deep forest locations or sites of abandoned native villages” and, later, “the large rhythms of Western forests, driftwood-tossed beaches and expansive skies”. She blended these two themes in ways uniquely her own. Her “qualities of painterly skill and vision […] enabled her to give form to a Pacific mythos that was so carefully distilled in her imagination”.
Her painting can be divided into several distinct phases: her early work, before her studies in Paris; her early paintings under the Fauvist influence of her time in Paris; a post-impressionist middle period before her encounter with the Group of Seven; and her later, formal period, under the post-cubist influences of Lawren Harris and American artist and friend, Mark Tobey. She used charcoal and watercolour for her sketches. The greatest part of her mature work was oil on canvas or, when money was scarce, oil on paper.
Biography courtesy of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Carr