EMILY CARR (1871-1945) was a Canadian artist and writer heavily inspired by the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. One of the first painters in Canada to adopt a Modernist and Post-Impressionist painting style, she did not receive widespread recognition for her work until late in her life. As she matured, the subject matter of her painting shifted from aboriginal themes to landscapes—forest scenes in particular. As a writer, Emily was one of the earliest chroniclers of life in British Columbia. She is called a "Canadian icon". She is best known for her attention to the totemic carvings of the First Nations people of British Columbia and the rain forests of Vancouver Island.
Born in Victoria, British Columbia (just a stones throw from our island), the year British Columbia joined Canada, Emily was the second-youngest of nine children. The children were raised on English tradition. Richard Carr, born in England, believed it was sensible to live on Vancouver Island, a colony of Great Britain, where he could practice English customs and continue his British citizenship. Richard Carr was taught in the Presbyterian tradition, with Sunday morning prayers and evening Bible readings. He called on one child per week to recite the sermon, and Emily consistently had trouble reciting it.
Emily's father encouraged her artistic inclinations, but it was only in 1891, after her parents' deaths, that she pursued her art seriously, attending the San Francisco Art Institute for two years before returning to Victoria. Later she traveled to London where she studied at the Westminster School of Art. She traveled also to a rural art colony in St Ives, Cornwall, returning to British Columbia in 1905.
In 1907 Emily travelled to Alaska with her sister, and this trip, which exposed her to the poles of the northern First Nations, seems to have changed the focus of her art. While she had earlier depicted First Nations people on Vancouver Island and in Vancouver, her attention was captured by the totemic carvings that she saw on this trip. She felt, however, that she was ill-equipped to draw or paint these poles, and she decided to seek further training in France .
|Totem Walk at Sitka|
Following her return to Canada , in the summer of 1912, she went north to visit First Nations villages on the Skeena River and in the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii). She produced an important body of work in the field, and in the fall of the year she produced the first of her major canvases of First Nations subject matter. In these works, highly influenced by her French training, she used bright, fauvist colors and, often, broken brushwork.
She showed these works in Vancouver in early 1913, hoping that the government of the province would purchase them. When the project failed, she returned to Victoria and turned her attention to other ways of making a living. She ran a boarding house, raised sheepdogs, made pottery and gave art lessons but she produced very little painting.
In the 1930s she began devoting most of her attention to landscape, particularly the forest, as subject matter. These paintings are among her most important contributions to Canadian art. They express her profound identification with the landscape of the province and her belief that nature was a tangible expression of God.
By the late 1930s, having suffered a series of heart attacks, Emily found it harder to travel. She began to focus more of her energy on writing and produced an unusual and important series of books, including Klee Wyck, a book of stories based on her experiences in First Nations villages, which won the Governor General's Award for Literature in 1941. She died in 1945, in her native Victoria, at the age of 74, recognized as an artist and writer of major importance.
Emily interpreted the Pacific Northwest landscape and its indigenous culture at a time when these subjects were unfamiliar outside of this region. I find her colors very true to the shades found on our island, especially in winter months, with her images of lush forests, deep blue seas, and the rugged contours of the land.
She had a profound love of her country, its natural beauty and power, and the pioneering spirit that continues to shape it today.