CM . . . .
Volume VII Number 9 . . . . January 5, 2001
It had rained all day: a grey, ceaseless downpour under heavy skies. All day she had waited for the Indian agent who promised to take her to the remote village where local people told her she would find totem poles. She had been travelling for days--by coastal freighter, fishboat, launch, or canoe--however she could reach the next small village, the next pole. She was going to sketch them before they all disappeared, as she feared, forever.As the book jacket remarks, from the very first, Emily Carr was "contrary." She needed to be. Born in 1871, in an era when all girls were expected to be able to sketch a little and dabble in watercolours, but only men could be real artists, Emily had to be very contrary indeed in order to do what she felt she must. Her contrariness included making the trustee of her father's estate pay for her going to San Francisco to take art lessons, making her family agree to her going to London and Paris to study, and making various people, such as the Indian agent mentioned in the excerpt, take her places where no white woman had ever gone so that she could paint the totem poles and forests of her beloved British Columbia.
Quite often these excursions ended in a disaster of one sort or another. Cities, other than Vancouver and Victoria, seemed to oppress her, and her study sessions in London and Paris both terminated with her being in hospital, sick in body and mind. (They called it "hysteria"; depression, perhaps?) Her family, particularly her sisters, while having no use for her art, were remarkably tolerant, though not supportive, and some one of them would turn up and look after her and get her back home as required. In return, she was often cross with them, but they continued to be very close all their lives.
When thinking of Emily Carr, one tends to think of totem poles, and with reason. She spent at least eight years travelling up the coast of British Columbia, to the Queen Charlotte Islands and to Alaska, sketching and painting the magnificent poles, recording for posterity what was being destroyed or allowed to decay. Imagine her devastation when, in 1913, the provincial government refused to buy her collection of more than 200 items! Not until the National Gallery in Ottawa exhibited her works in 1933 did B.C. show any interest in them, and then she felt it was more because "the East" had done so rather because they saw any virtue in them.
Always having had to endure denigrating comments about her work made Emily very suspicious of compliments. Not until she met the artists of the Group of Seven, particularly Lauren Harris, did she finally begin to understand that people did think her work to be worthwhile. That realization opened the floodgates of her creativity, and her painting "took off" in more abstract and very powerful directions. She continued to tour B.C., though, as she got older, she acquired a caravan which she called the "Elephant" that could house her and her collection of dogs and a monkey and rat, among other pets. When ill-health made painting impossible, she wrote instead, and her books, particularly Klee Wyck, which won the Governor General's prize in 1942, were quite successful. When she was able, she painted; when she could not, she wrote.
Money was always a problem. In her time, Emily taught art, especially to children; she raised sheep dogs; she hooked rugs; she ran a boarding house; and she sold produce from her garden. Many of these things she hated, especially being a landlady, but she persevered with them and with other things that were either essential or worthwhile. She was a charter member of the Canadian Group of Painters, the group which evolved out of the Group of Seven. She set up a exhibition space in her own home, hoping to establish a People's Gallery, but funding was never forthcoming.
All of this sounds as if she were a saint in a painter's smock. She wasn't. She loved her animals unconditionally, but people much less, and she was not easy to get along with. Organizations did not thrive when she was a member. She was eccentric in her dress and behaviour, and, as she got older, enjoyed being so. Contrary to the core!
Because this biography is not strictly chronological, it is helpful that, at the book's conclusion, along with an index, there is a time line of Emily Carr's life, paralleled by happenings in the rest of the country and the world. The time line enables the reader to keep track of "what happened when" while the book, itself, develops somewhat thematically. "A policeman's lot is not a happy one" says WS Gilbert; neither was that of a woman artist at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is some consolation that Emily lived long enough to see both her writing and her art appreciated.
For the biography of a painter, this book is remarkably devoid of reproductions of paintings! There are many photographs of Emily at various stages, but only four of her work. Pictures are worth a thousand words, especially when discussing an artist's development. Even in the black-and-white format, more illustrations would have illuminated the text.
Mary Thomas works in two elementary schools in Winnipeg, MB.
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