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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Emily Carr

The family home in Victoria became a boarding house, then a studio, later the title of a book, and today, a museum featuring the artist who made it all happen, Emily Carr.
Emily Carr Self-portrait, 1938-39
One of the supposed attributes of all artists is that they be eccentric. Personally, that doesn't apply to me, except that I'm a morning and a late-night person...afternoons...not so much. I eat only sugar-free cookies and have a considerable stash of them in my desk. I'm neat but not always tidy. And, I love flavored coffees. Aside from that... Emily Carr was, was she ever. She was not overly fond of visitors thus all the chairs in her studio hung from the ceiling. If she liked you, she took one down. If not... She liked animals, though. A friend recalled her house was like a zoo, or more accurately, a circus. She had a pet monkey named Woo, squirrels, a parrot, rabbits, bobtail puppies, even an elephant. Actually the elephant was what she called the small, primitive "caravan" (bottom photo, travel trailer to Americans) she took with her on sketching expeditions in the British Columbian forests. Emily Carr was something of a recluse and, it would seem, deliberately eccentric.

Breton Church, 1910, Emily Carr, one of her earliest surviving works.
Emily Carr was born in 1871 in British Columbia, the second youngest of nine children. She was raised in a strict, English, Presbyterian home, something of a rambunctious child, by all accounts. She had her first drawing lesson at the age of eight, her first work, a charcoal drawing on the back of a paper sack. Her father's reaction: "Umm...not bad." Her mother's: "You're all black, go wash." Both her parents died while Emily was in her teens, ushering in financial difficulties for the family, though she was able to work her way through art schools in San Francisco, followed by five years in England and later, in 1910, in France where she picked up her Post-impressionist style and color palette. Many would consider her a Fauvist. Certainly in her personal mannerisms she fit the Fauvist definition-- "wild beast." Between sojourns to Europe, around 1905 she briefly held a teaching position in Victoria at "The Ladies Art Club." That lasted less than a month as the ladies began boycotting her classes because of her rude manner, her smoking, and cursing at them.

Haida Village, Totem Poles at Tannu, 1913, Emily Carr
Totem Walk at Sitka, 1917, Emily Carr
Now far more worldly in terms of her art, Emily Carr returned to Victoria, British Columbia, from France in 1912, determined to make a career for herself as a painter. She began to paint the natives and the native landscape of western Canada, only to discover that her French Fauvism was out of step with the down-to-earth sensibilities of provincial Canadians. Her work received only modest recognition and acceptance, and virtually no sales. Feeling the pinch, Emily converted the family home, a two-story Victorian frame house (top) into a boarding house which she is reported to have run with a dictatorial iron fist. A sizable garden out back provided vegetables to feed her sisters and the boarders while also augmenting their meager income. For more than fifteen years she seldom painted.

The stories dealt with Emily's
relationships with the natives
she met during her painting
During the late 1920s when Emily Carr once more began painting, she began to find the broader acceptance and recognition she had craved before, as she was lumped in with Canada's famous "Group of Seven." She began exhibiting first in the far west then in various prestigious museums throughout the country. Gradually, she abandoned the impulse to document in favor of a purer form of creativity, flirting briefly with abstraction, which she deemed not suited for her disposition. Then, in 1937, Emily Carr suffered the first of three heart attacks as well as a stroke in 1940. Her doctor advised her to "slow down." As a result, Emily began her career as an author and illustrator of children's books, her first, Klee Wyck (Laughing Woman) was publish in in 1941, after which she wrote five more, the last three published after her death in 1945.


Above the Gravel Pit, Metchosin, 1934, Emily Carr--perhaps a little van Gogh influence.
Emily's Dream, an illustration
from one of her books.
Emily Carr is often compared to the American female painting icon, Georgia O'Keeffe. There are similarities. They were both roughly the same age (Emily was 16 years older), quite similar in disposition, and both somewhat reclusive. Likewise, Emily's totems compare quite neatly with O'Keeffe's skulls. However, there the similarities end. O'Keeffe, though growing up in the American Midwest, was a product of the New York art world, married, sophisticated, her work purely American in both style and content. Emily Carr, was a product of the thin veneer of English cultural life in the "wild Northwest." She lacked the connections enjoyed by O'Keeffe in her marriage to Alfred Stieglitz. Not only was Carr unmarried, she is said to have banned the word "sex" in her presence. O'Keeffe came to paint the West late in life. Carr painted it all her life. Moreover, O'Keeffe's work today sells for millions. A painting by Emily Carr recently brought $1,000.

Emily Carr with her pets on the steps of the Elephant, 1934.

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