Timely and Betimes

Emily Carr lived through the depression, finding a variety of ways to ‘make ends meet. “A living must be squeezed from somewhere.” And this sentiment has meaning for many once again today. Carr’s journals are full of dark days, light rays and in the balance, a great impatience to learn and be about creating.Not the least of her creating was defining time and space to paint in a male dominated art world, with the additional requirement of earning a living. She found ways to support herself during lean times, breeding dogs (Bobtails and Griffons), creating pottery and especially luckily for us, she at last arrived at writing, earning the  Governor-General’s Award for non-fiction with her first book, Klee Wyck, published in 1941.

Arbutis Tree Credit: In memory of Jennet and Louis Davies, Edith and Oswald Parker and James R. Davies, with thanks to Emily Carr, these works are donated by N. E. Davies, Brian, Bruce and Kevin Davies. Watercolour, c.1909. Accession Number: 2005.025.001 Reproduced here courtesy of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

“I have been to the woods at Esquimalt. Day was splendid—sunshine and blue, blue sky, and two arbutus trees with tender satin bark, smooth and lovely as naked maidens, silhouetted against the rough pine woods. Very joyous and uplifting, but surface representation doesn’t satisfy me now.”—from Hundreds and Thousands,  Simcoe Street

Esquimalt Lagoon is less than 20 miles from Carr’s ‘House of All Sorts’ on Simcoe Street in Victoria. Today, it includes a migratory bird sanctuary. Esquimalt Lagoon, photo by Alan Wilson, all rights reserved. Special thanks to http://www.naturespicsonline.com.

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Shadows and Sunlight

Sombreness Sunlight, H-02813, Royal BC Museum, BC Archives. Emily Carr, Sombreness Sunlit, 1938-1940. Oil on canvas. pdp63. Reproduced here with permission, all rights reserved.

“Woods you are very sly, picking those moments when you are quiet and off guard to reveal yourselves to us, folding us into your calm, accepting us to the sway, the rhythm of your spaces, space interwoven with the calm that rests forever in you.” —Emily Carr, Growing Pains, from ‘Green”

The ground underfoot on many Northwest trails is soft and pliant. Trees create a green canopy, light filtering down softly—subdued by foliage. Out in the forest, Carr’s paintings come to mind, alive with sunlight and shadows.

Carr’s paintings express the freedom she found in the forests, forests which remain near Victoria in Goldstream Park and Esquimalt Lagoon and on Vancouver Island’s western shore. During Carr’s young life, Beacon Hill Park was surely a more wild tumble than today, where she could explore and take time away from manicured English gardens.

This painting is included in the exhibit, “The Other Emily” at the Royal Museum of British Columbia, through October 10, 2011.

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Know her by her letters, sketches, studies

When I look at the neatly contained beds of flowers at the Emily Carr House in Victoria, it occurs to me just what a contrast this is to Emily Carr’s art—full of dark forest corners, expressive wind-swept forests and skies stretching out to open seas.

“As Victoria grew bigger, social groups grew smaller, selecting only those people who were congenial to each other….Victoria stood like a gawky girl, waiting, waiting to be a grown-up city.”—Emily Carr, Visiting Matrons, The Book of Small

For a bit of understanding, let’s take a walk with Emily, beginning with the Royal British Columbia Museum, and touching points across town.

Kathryn Bridge, Curator, 'The Other Emily'

The comprehensive exhibit The Other Emily, is a study of Carr’s early years, brought to life by rarely seen documents and letters, family photos and new art set to contrast with Carr’s.  This is Emily Carr with texture, color and variations side by side with a fine representative collection of her works, offering up a thorough, multi-faceted experience of Carr’s time and place.

The Other Emily is presented as an alternate view of Carr, through new works, but the real revelation is found in the carefully composed collection of artifacts and documents, including original manuscripts with Emily’s notations and corrections. Curator Kathryn Bridge has combed the archives, uncovering new details and correcting some dates. I hope that these treasured manuscripts and sketchbooks stay open to the public when The Other Emily completes its run on October 10, 2011.

Emily Carr sketchbook, on display at RBCM's 'The Other Emily'

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The Beginning, in Victoria

Emily Carr was born in Victoria BC and spent most of her living near Beacon Hill Park and Government Street. It was a bustling small town then, rising up along the coast,  with the tumble of new commerce in the Gold Rush’s wake.

“It is hard to remember just when you first became aware of being alive. It is like looking through rain onto a bald new lawn; as you watch, the brown is all prickled with pale green. You did not see the points pierce, did not hear the stab—there they are!” —from Emily Carr’s the Book of Small, Beginnings

Victoria today retains the feeling of a smaller city, easily walkable, with a good bit of the charm and expansive natural views that Carr no doubt drew inspiration from. If provincial social moires of her age were a limitation, coast and trees seem to define the broadening of her vision.Emily’s family home is open to the public and is a short six block walk from the core of the Inner Harbor. On a spring visit, I found an orderly garden in spring bloom.

“…the garden prim and carefully tended. Everything about it was extremely English. It was as though Father had buried a tremendous homesickness in this new soil and it had rooted and sprung up English.” —from Emily Carr’s the Book of Small, Beginnings

I think of the security and sense of place mixed with bittersweet expectations that an emerging woman artist surely experienced. The scent of green, rain soaked grass and broad parks, which really felt like wilderness, framed by traditional English architecture. I see Victoria as the blessing and curse for Emily—but in so many ways this is the case for each of us—learning through what pushes on us, the counter-intuitive guiding us to the intuitive.

Everything in the Northwest woods now is out in the tenderest of  greens, ferns hide nurseries of mushrooms and trees wave fragile new leaves in the breeze…soon the forest will be darker and deeper, sunlight fueling growth, the perfect time to step into Carr’s forest paintings.

Pine Trees & Blue Sky, Emily Carr, c. 1935, 1983.074.00, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Gift of Mrs. Joanna McGreevy & Mr. H. Hume Wright. Reproduced here courtesy of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, all rights reserved.


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Winds of Heaven: a preface

Michael Ostroff’s documentary, Winds of Heaven is an evocative introduction to the life and art of Emily Carr. Winds of Heaven is narrated with Carr’s own words, taken from travel journals, letters and her books. New footage of Haida Gwaii (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Goldstream Park, bring the viewer into the Northwest frame of mind, where mountains appear as mysterious gods and the wilderness’ edge falls out of sight. Canada’s best known artist is arguably also one of the best global representatives of Northwestern art, capturing place, spirit and culture.

In spite of constant obstacles, discouraging reviews and a long period away from painting, Carr was prolific and leaves a great legacy of visual art and writing.

“… despair is part of every creative individual. It can’t be conquered. One rises out of it. I suppose we are only content when all our sails are up and full of the winds of heaven. I hope all your sails are up and full of the winds of heaven. There is only one way. Keep on.”—Artist Lawren Harris, from his correspondence to Carr

As far as my opinion goes, Emily Carr is the transcendent Walt Whitman of Northwest painting and the answering call over the mountains southward to Georgia O’Keeffe. Coming late to Carr’s work, I now set about exploring Emily.

Video courtesy of Cine Metu. Totem photo in banner courtesy of Tourism BC. All other banner photo images, Pamela Biery.

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