The Genius We Laughed At

She labeled herself a failure, this strange turbulent woman who painted what the forest told her. She burned many of her canvases and ran a chaotic boardinghouse. But Emily Carr is now acclaimed as one of Canada’s greatest artists

J. K. NESBITT January 1 1951

The Genius We Laughed At

She labeled herself a failure, this strange turbulent woman who painted what the forest told her. She burned many of her canvases and ran a chaotic boardinghouse. But Emily Carr is now acclaimed as one of Canada’s greatest artists

J. K. NESBITT January 1 1951

SHE was a stocky thickset woman, and when she walked the streets of Victoria’s James Bay district, a rabble of dogs and cats at her heels, a monkey or a white rat on her shoulder and pushing a baby buggy full of groceries, the neighbors used to nudge each other and say: “There goes Emily Carr. She paints and she writes and she’s queer.”

Almost until her death she remained unrecognized as one of Canada’s great artists and writers. How were the housewives of James Bay to know that the Times of London would call this strange woman “a distinguished writer and a distinctive painter,” that the New York Times would praise her “brisk and sensitive originality,” that Dr. Max Stern, of Montreal’s Dominion Gallery, would call her “the outstanding Canadian painter”?

Victoria looked on Emily Carr as an eccentric old maid, such a failure at writing and painting that she had to keep a boardinghouse and raise dogs for sale.

In 1943, two years before her death, hardly anyone bought her canvases. Today the paintings she valued at $35 and $50 sell for $250 and $350. One great swirling forest scene which she marked $125 is valued at $1,000.

About 400 of her paintings hang today in Canadian art galleries. Her work has been shown at London’s Tate Gallery and in New York, Washington, San Francisco and Philadelphia. She destroyed 200 canvases because they were crowding her home. She often crumpled them and stuffed them in garbage cans. She burned some of her work because she didn’t like it. Sometimes she was so disgusted with a painting that she wouldn’t sign it until years later.

She never wanted to make money from her work. She once placed a price on a picture and when a buyer offered much more Emily snapped: “I’ve told you the price; you do not have to take it.”

She made little from her paintings, but her books were more successful. The journals in which she scribbled blossomed into the award-winning “Klee-Wyck,” sketches of her visits to the Indians; “The Book of Small,” impressions of her childhood and early-day Victoria; “The House of All Sorts,” the story of her boarders. Her autobiography, “Growing Pains,” was published after her death. Ten thousand copies of her books have been sold in Canada and more are being prepared from her journals.

She died at 74 with no awareness of the contribution she had made to Canadian art and letters.

She had tremendous drive, this odd woman. No one ever knew what was behind it. She often referred to a mysterious love that tortured and tormented her. Not long before she died in 1945 she said that she’d just had a letter from a man who had loved her 40 years before and who still loved her. Was this the secret of the frustration that lay inside her?

In her latter years she kept a boardinghouse in Victoria. Her lodgers were terrified of her sharp unruly tongue and stinging sarcasms. Many became her friends but they never could understand her or her rages.

Once a boarder insisted on hanging his socks to dry from his bedroom window. Miss Carr was not pleased. She was watering the garden with her monkey Wu on her shoulder. Just then the owner of the socks walked in the gate. “Those socks!” It was a shriek “You take them away—or take yourself away from my house. I won’t have, I won’t have, I told you I won’t have it, or you.”

She shook her fist in the man’s face and his glasses fell and shattered. Wu, clattering wildly, fled to the back garden. Then Emily turned the hose on the boarder and he fled, dripping. Next day he moved, muttering that Emily Carr was a madwoman and should be locked up instead of trying to paint and write.

Milly Tore Her Clothes

Perhaps it was because Emily Carr was one of them that Victorians scoffed at her. They wanted her to be reserved and ladylike as becoming a daughter of one of the city’s first families. She was born in Victoria, Dec. 13, 1871, of English parents. Her father was a prosperous importer, a solid citizen of business and social standing. Her mother was gentle and delicate and Emily loved her dearly, for the mother understood this child who was so different from her other children, rebellious, dreamy, easily hurt, easily able to hurt. Emily grew up with four sisters and a brother. A sister Alice, now 81 and nearly blind, lives in Victoria.

Emily wrote that a snowstorm raged in Victoria when she was born and that it went into her being with the first flicker of life, never lulled in all the years, and that always she was fighting it.

They called her Milly and she was a troublesome child. She tore her clothes climbing fences and trees. She talked to the cows and got dirty in the barn. She was saucy. There was much scolding from older sisters whom she humiliated in public. Milly created friction all her life. Her moods changed rapidly from nice to nasty.

She was called pretty as a young woman. The violets she wore at her throat accented the distant dreamy look that came to her eyes and turned them smoky purple in the midst of the most down-to-earth talk.

Even in her later years she retained some of her early beauty. Her hands were delicate and at the same time strong. Her feet were small and graceful, surprising in a woman of squarish build. Her eyebrows, heavy and arched, gave her an Oriental look.

Her mother died when she was 12, her father two years later. With the money they left her she went alone to San Francisco to study art. Later, in 1900 and again in 1910, she went to Europe and studied in London and Paris. She never mentioned her teachers, except Henry Gibbs in Paris.

On her first visit to England she suffered long periods of depression. She wrote that a suitor followed her to London and implored her to return to Canada to marry him. She refused. Her work, she said, was more important.

No one has been able to explain the “love” she mentions in her writings. She wrote that she found love more than half pain, that her love went where it wasn’t wanted, that a great love was offered but she couldn’t respond and couldn’t accept. But she was never specific.

All her life she was terribly lonely. It wasn’t company she wanted. She craved a kinship with another soul. She must have had such a kinship somewhere and once having tasted it, she could do with nothing less.

The first English trip she suffered a nervous breakdown and spent 18 months in a sanitarium, often praying she would die. She left England without good-byes to friends. On her return to Canada she sold newspaper cartoons and taught art in Victoria. As an art teacher she was short with children, crushingly sarcastic if they copied instead of creating. Work, work, work—create, create, create, no matter what—that was her way. “Don’t talk about it,” she would say abruptly. “Chit-chat never accomplished anything.”

On her second trip abroad, in 1910, she studied and learned a good deal. Back from Europe she tried teaching in Vancouver. Vancouver’s social set and the art crowd scoffed at her, because she wouldn’t conform. She never conformed. Only recently a Victorian looked at a charcoal sketch she had done of her father before she was 14. “Now that’s fine,” he said. “If Emily Carr had stuck with that kind of painting instead of painting the junk she did I’d admire her.”

But Emily was never satisfied with mere photographic art. She wanted to paint what she felt, and she did. Her sweeping canvases of the woods, vast and changing as she saw them, make her known today. In the forest she saw movement all around her. Trees danced for Emily Carr and so she made them dance in her paintings. Gangling treetops were ballet dancers bowing to Nature. To her nothing in Nature was ever still. Her forest paintings show the British Columbia woods lush and terrifying in their loneliness, tumbled, gigantic and chaotic.

Once she tried to start an art gallery in Victoria but she got no support.

In 1913 she said she was through with painting. She would be a landlady. There was a rasping laugh in her throat when she said it, but she built a boardinghouse in Victoria. She bred English sheepdogs to bring in a few more dollars.

After her landlady days she lived by herself and she did a staggering number of canvases. In her final years she went to Alice’s house where the two sisters had separate apartments. Emily was so determined to remain independent that she placed a sign on the gate: “For Miss Alice Carr take the path to the right. For Miss Emily Carr take the gravel path to the left.”

As the nature she loved was impatient, she too was impatient. When she wanted a picture frame she tore a picket from her garden fence and made one. She could make a lampshade from an oil can. She drove nails like a carpenter. She hauled pebbles from the beach for her studio yard. She buried her dead dogs herself, trundling them to the beach by wheelbarrow.

A Peacock Would Perform

She called animals her creatures and she said they were more loyal than humans. Each night she recited “This little pig went to market” to her monkey Wu and she sang lullabies until Wu fell asleep in her arms.

Her sister Alice recalls Emily’s animals. She says: “I’ll never forget that awful winter when Milly was in hospital and I had to go to her house each day and look after a monkey, parrot, five dogs, chickens, canaries, chipmunks, squirrels and a white rat. Oooh that white rat! Milly let the thing crawl around her neck and lick her throat. How could she?”

No one ever understood this frenzied devotion to animals. Emily Carr had some affinity with them. A peacock from nearby Beacon Park each day spread his feathers on the sills of Emily’s studio. Gulls from the sea flapped screeching against her door.

Many said Emily was bitter because Victoria wouldn’t accept her paintings. It was not that. She didn’t like being rebuffed but she had a sense of humor that made her laugh at those who said her paintings were queer and looked like children’s blobs.

“I paint what I see the only way I see it in the only way I know,” she would snap. “I don’t care what people think. I know lots of people hate my work. I can’t help that. I’m trying to express something I feel, to satisfy myself.”

Orthodox Victoria never approved this walking riddle of a woman whose spirit was often violent, whose words flowed hot and uncontrolled, who splashed paint until it glowed with life. Victoria turned noses up and thumbs down on the work of Emily Carr.

Often she found relief in lonely Indian villages, sketching totem poles. She traveled by dugout canoe, smelly gasboat, horseback—a dog always with her. She made friends with the Indians. They called her “the laughing one.” She understood them and they her. When they grunted she grunted back. Words weren’t necessary. She was devoted to a drunken, heartbroken Indian woman named Sophie, who had lost all her many children. Sophie and Emily cried for hours together on the small graves. Emily painted Sophie’s picture. It remained at the head of Emily’s bed for the remainder of her life.

Her boarders walked on eggshells, but it was interesting too. Besides, Emily could cook. Curried sausage was her specialty.

One of the boarders Emily didn’t argue with was a young Englishman, Philip Amsden. She gave him her devotion and it was returned. There were 30 years between them but Amsden says that in her company he was never aware of it. Emily mothered him. His presence comforted her. Yet when he became engaged and asked if he could bring his fiancee to meet her she snapped: “Certainly not! I don’t care to meet her.”

She Scribbled in Bed

After a turbulent day washing dishes, making beds, stoking the furnace; fixing leaky pipes, nursing sick dogs and cooking stews Emily climbed the narrow stairs to her attic studio and painted, or went to bed to scribble in her journals. She said if it wasn’t for her daubings all the pieces that made her would fly apart and she could never put them together again.

Restless as the woods and clouds that she painted, Emily Carr went through her landlady days hating them. She was convinced she was through as an artist. She painted only to find refuge from the lumps of emptiness that knotted her life.

And she scribbled. She never told anyone she wanted to write a book. She said she scribbled to amuse herself. Once she visited a friend, carrying a large canvas bag. The friend imagined it contained knitting. Years later Emily confessed that her scribblings were in the bag but her courage failed when it came to reading them.

Her spelling was atrocious and she had no idea of punctuation. She spelled “orthodox” as “authordox” and “slippery” with one “p”. But in 1941 she won the Governor-General’s Award with her first book, “Klee Wyck.”

Her writing was successful with the public before her painting. Recognition first came for her canvases in 1927. Suddenly, to her astonishment, the Group of Seven—noted eastern Canadian artists—discovered her. They were amazed at the magnitude of her work, its originality. They encouraged her. The group’s interest gave her new life. She was not old after all—just 56.

The Group of Seven invited her to Toronto and she made three short trips there, excited as a college girl. She returned to Victoria to start the paintings that brought her acclaim in death.

“I Hate Reporters!”

With her new confidence she said Canadian painters must no longer pay attention to Old World art. “We are through with the old sentimental ditties; we are through with the old sentimental canvases. It is no sin if you do not like creative art, but you do not have to ridicule it. Just ignore it. It’s better to be a street sweeper, a charwoman or a boardinghouse keeper than to starve one’s soul.”

Newspapers by this time were paying some attention to her. In 1940 reporter Elizabeth Ruggles interviewed her for the Victoria Times. Emily quickly tired. “What does it matter if I keep monkeys or am fat or thin or stand on my head?” she asked.

Miss Ruggles asked about the Carr family. “What’s that to do with my painting?” croaked Emily. “It’s my own life and my own secret. This poking around to find out what you had for breakfast, what you call your car. I hate it. I hate reporters.”

Unnerved, Miss Ruggles pointed to the sunset, suggested Miss Carr paint it. “Never,” said Emily Carr. “That’s one thing I’ll never paint. Sunsets on canvas look like broken eggs.”

She didn’t like publicity. When the National Film Board wanted pictures of her at work, she stormed: “I’d just as soon be filmed at my prayers or in my bath.”

Ira Dilworth, head of CBC’s International Service in Montreal, then living in Vancouver, was Emily Carr’s closest friend in her last years. He edited her books. She called him “Dear Eye.” He once called her “a ruthless, selfish and bad-tempered old woman.” But he says, “I have seen her become incandescent with enthusiasm for another’s work. I’ve seen her gentleness to an old woman, to an animal; and I’m convinced that Emily Carr was a great genius.”

As she saw her books begin to sell and her paintings gain in notice, Emily willed the money from her work to set up scholarships to encourage B. C. art. Her estate was probated at $24,000 but today it is worth much more.

She was plagued most of her life by poor health. Heart disease crippled her in later years but she was never angered by this. When she felt unwell she hummed a ditty: “I’m not very long for this world, my white wings will soon be unfurled. Old Peter will say, hoo-rip and hoo-ray, for Millie is coming today.”

Growing weaker with the years, she had increasing surges of creation. She stole away from her doctor and her sister into the woods to paint and so exhausted herself she had to take to bed. In 1941, nearing 70, she lived by herself in the forest and did 15 giant canvases in a week. The movement she saw in nature was more stupendous than ever, and stupendously she portrayed it. In 1942 she did her last canvas, “The Clearing,” which is the frontispiece of “Growing Pains.” She gave it to Ira Dilworth.

The Forest Was Calling

She bought an old trailer in those last years. A taxi hauled her to the woods and left her with her monkey and chipmunks, a white rat, a dog, a copy of Walt Whitman’s poems. She painted all day, wrote into the dawn. She cooked sparse meals on a camp fire and slept little. She knew there was not much time.

Not long before her death she was staying with Ira Dilworth and his mother in Vancouver. One morning she announced: “I must go home today and go into the forest again. The forest still has something to say to me, and I must be there to hear.”

Her doctor warned her not to go and her sister and friends added their arguments too. But Emily went back to the forest to put on canvas those startling, vivid sweeps of swirling movement.

Defiantly, she said: “I don’t want to trickle out. I want to pour until the pail is empty—the last going out in a gush, not in drops."