Time With Emily Carr
I recently read all of Emily Carr’s writing in one giant omnibus – about 900 pages. Emily Carr is mostly known as a west coast painter but she was also a very accomplished writer – her stories were even read on the radio.
I have visited Carr’s paintings several times: on the 3rd floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery, at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and more recently at the Audain Museum in Whistler. Her art work acts as a touchstone to me or like a “coming home” – I feel like she has taught us how to feel about the forest.
While reading all her books in succession I started to feel like Carr was becoming a friend which I looked forward to hanging out with at the end of the day. Maybe it is the frank, direct way in which she wrote – believing you shouldn’t “use a big word if a little one will suffice” or the humour she found in everyday life, which made her feel so real.
Carr’s writings provided a clear glimpse into what Victoria was like in the 1920-40’s (Emily Carr was born in Victoria in 1871). It’s hard to believe now that she was almost trampelled by an escaped herd of cows on Fort Street. In those days Victoria residents used England to define their standard of what was proper, eventhough some had never even been there. Carr’s ongoing complaint was that people in Victoria were more English than those in England. People did not have a sense of what was “Canadian” yet.
Carr also, very adventurously for a woman at the time, travelled up and down the coast to paint and record the First Nations culture before it disappeared (they thought it was going to disappear back then). These paintings ended up in an exhibition in Toronto which was how she met Lawren Harris and the rest of the Group of Seven who influenced her later work.
Carr’s books covered many aspects of her life. I learned what it would be like to live in a sanitorium for tuberculosis for one year in England (Carr did not have TB but a type of nervous exhaustion related to living in the big city of London where she attended art school). In “The House of All Sorts” she writes in an insightful way about the trials and tribulations of owning a boarding house. She even wrote a book of stories about her well-loved animals. Not many people would put up with a monkey for twelve years, which if unleashed, would destroy everything in sight or eat tubes of paint until it got deathly ill – more than once. Her personal journals were also published which provided a window into her daily life.
Emily Carr lived on the edge: as an unmarried woman painter living in a highly conservative society and also geographically (Victoria was far away from any other modern artists). Her outsider status meant she didn’t feel any pressure to conform: she had the freedom to find her own voice. The downside of this was that she often felt a lack of companionship and desired a friend who understood her and her paintings. However, Carr was not in the habit of letting misfortune hamper her work. She felt it was her upmost responsibility to record and express the real truth through her art and had a disdain for “fluff”.
I think her steadfastness, willingness to work hard and ability to recognize truth are the traits I find most admirable about Emily Carr. I would have liked to have been her friend (not sure I would have liked the monkey though).