The first time I saw an actual Emily Carr painting, in an obscure corner of a far room in the old National Gallery in Ottawa, I was pulled towards its green as are iron filings to magnetic north. Thus, I was thrilled that the July selection for our library book club was Emily Carr's Growing Pains: An Autobiography which highlights her development as an artist.
Some of her lessons learned from studying in San Francisco, London, Cornwall, and Paris include: the difference between naked and nude; the destructive nature of class consciousness and snobbery; the importance of being true to your self, of saying no to those who would make you into something else (such as a wife and mother); and the importance of being true to your subjects. If you are a child of the forest, don't be pushed into painting the sea. Emily confesses the dangers of stress and depression, the monetary sacrifices, the impossibility of juggling two careers (artist and landlady). She objects to the tendency to distort the human form for shock value and praises the way distortion is used in First Nations art for a specific purpose, to see into the life, the spirit, of a subject. She celebrates the importance of finding kindred spirits and warns of the danger of being too influenced by the style of another. Emily's emotional challenges are obvious yet she perseveres in living her non-traditional lifestyle and developing her own artistic style with her chosen subject matter.
Emily's writing style too is most impressive. Her voice seems as fresh as if she were camped in the yard. Her images are all so vivid and derived naturally from the environment. Many of us were inspired to seek out other of her published works. I also finished reading The Book of Small about her childhood in Victoria, BC in the 1870s and 1880s, and Klee Wyck about her travels to paint the totem poles. I pulled out my old copy of the Doris Shadbolt's The Art of Emily Carr. And I made a special trip to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see In Dialogue with Carr which includes some of her sketches, paintings, and primitive pots (see Juxtapositions). My next visit to Victoria will definitely include a visit to the Carr House on Government Street ( www.emilycarr.com ). The VAG says Carr's legacy is a visual BC identity. For Emily, a visual BC identity is part of a proud Canadian identity.