150+ Canadians Day 29: Emily Carr

Emily Carr contributed to peace through her iconic landscape art as well as her popularization of indigenous art. #Canada150
“I ornamented my pottery with Indian designs – that was why the tourists bought it. I hated myself for prostituting Indian Art; our Indians did not ‘pot,’ their designs were not intended to ornament clay – but I did keep the Indian design pure.”

Growing Pains – An Autobiography, (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1946), 231.

Emily Carr studied in San Francisco from 1889-95, travelled to England in 1899, then lived in France in 1910.  Discouraged by her lack of artistic success, she returned to Victoria where she came close to giving up art altogether.  However, her contact with the Group of Seven in 1930 resurrected her interest in art, and throughout the 1930s she specialized in scenes from the lives and rituals of the indigenous communities she became close with. She also showed her awareness of Canadian Indigenous culture through a number of works representing the British Columbian rainforest. She lived among British Columbia’s First Nations to research her subjects. Many of her Expressionistic paintings represent totem poles and other artifacts of Indigenous culture. She was one of the first artists to attempt to capture the spirit of Canada in a modern style.

She wrote of the importance of preserving indigenous culture and artifacts:

“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.”

The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island’s west coast had nicknamed Carr Klee Wyck, “the laughing one.” She gave this name to a book about her experiences with the natives, published in 1941. The book won the Governor General’s Award that year. Her other titles were The Book of Small (1942),The House of All Sorts (1944) and Growing Pains (1946) Pause and The Heart of a Peacock (1953), and in 1966, Hundreds and Thousands. They reveal her to be an accomplished writer.

“Look at the earth crowded with growth, new and old bursting from their strong roots hidden in the silent, live ground, each seed according to its own kind…each one knowing what to do, each one demanding its own rights on the earth. So artist, you too from the depths of your soul…let your roots creep forth, gaining strength.”

Bonus Editor’s material: If you, as I, have some thorny questions about Emily’s unique and somewhat ambiguous role in colonization. Do know that our committee chose her (and others) with these ambiguities in full mind. For further readings on this delicate interplay, we suggest this Globe article written by Sarah Milroy, an art gallery curator who struggled with these same questions.