THE PRIVATE WORLD OF EMILY CARR

In bold, brooding paintings like these, Emily Carr broke with the bucolic blandness of the Victorian past and pioneered an exciting and personal vision of Canada

November 5 1966

THE PRIVATE WORLD OF EMILY CARR

In bold, brooding paintings like these, Emily Carr broke with the bucolic blandness of the Victorian past and pioneered an exciting and personal vision of Canada

November 5 1966

THE PRIVATE WORLD OF EMILY CARR

In bold, brooding paintings like these, Emily Carr broke with the bucolic blandness of the Victorian past and pioneered an exciting and personal vision of Canada

JL^mily Carr, who died in 1945, was one of Canada’s great painters, though in her lifetime few recognized her genius. She was also a writer who used words with eloquence, power and passion. Her personal notebooks, published October 20 by Clarke, Irwin and Co. as Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr, reveal the intense inner life of a proud, independent, and lonely spirit. The journals abound in passages as vivid and direct as the colors on her canvases; their publication is a literary event. The section reprinted here is from the fall and winter of 1940-41.

blandness of the Victorian past and pioneered an exciting and personal vision of Canada

I USED TO WONDER how it would feel to be old. As a child I was very devoted to old ladies. They seemed to me to have faded like flowers. I am not half as patient with old women now that I am one. I am impatient of their stupidity and their selfishness. They want still to occupy the centre of the picture. They have had their day but they won’t give place. They grudge giving up. They won’t face up to old age and accept its slowing down of energy and strength. Some people call this sporty and think it wonderful for Grannie to be as bobbish as a girl. There are plenty of girls to act the part. Why can’t the old lady pass grandly and not grudgingly on, an example, not a rival? Old age without religion must be ghastly, looking forward only to dust and extinction. I do not call myself religious. I do not picture after-life in detail. I am content with “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard.” Perhaps it is faith, perhaps indolence, but I cannot imagine anything more hideous than feeling life decay, hurrying into a dark shut-off.

The days fill out. They are happy, contented days. I am nearer sixty-nine than sixty-eight

now, and a long way recovered from my stroke. There is a lot of life in me yet. Maybe I shall go out into the woods sketching again, who knows? I have got the sketches out that f did on the trip just before my stroke. They are very full of spring joy, high in key, with lots of light and tenderness of spring. How did I do these joyous things when I was so torn up over the war? They were done in Dunkirk days when we were holding our breath wondering if those trapped men were going to get out. We did not know the full awfulness of it then; we were guessing. Yet when T went into the woods I could rise and skip with the spring and forget my bad heart. Doesn’t it show that the good and beautiful and lovely and inspiring will of nature is stronger than evil and cruelty? Life is bigger than war and the tremendousness of spring can wash out the dirt of war. The terrific thing that is working over the nations is quite beyond the human. It is no good being dismayed. It is as inevitable as night. Tomorrow can’t come till the night has finished today. Nature finishes off one season’s growth and begins all over again. Her worn-out cast-offs

contentedly flutter down to the honorable joy of fertilizing the soil so that the new growth may better thrive from their richness. It is not dismayed when it turns yellow and sere, when it shrivels and falls.

DECEMBER 13th

I am sixty-nine years old today. It has been a nice birthday — cold, bright and frosty. Such lots of people remembered my date. Lollie Wilson and Hattie Newbery came to tea; Ruth Humphrey and Margaret Clay looked in, one with cigarettes and one with flowers. Alice asked Flora Burns to supper and we had a nice evening round the fire chattering. A very satisfactory birthday. Only one more year of man’s allotted time to go.

I do not mourn at old age. Life has been good and I have got a lot out of it, lots to remember and relive. I have liked life, perhaps the end more than the beginning. I was a happy-natured little girl but with a tragic streak, very vulnerable to hurt. I developed very late. Looking back is interesting. I can remember the exact spot and

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“I’ve had handy, active fingers and have made them work”

DECEMBER 20th

A week of my new year has gone already, apparently quite uneventfully. But who knows? A seed of something may have been sown and be turning over, preparing to root. I don’t suppose we know from moment to moment what trivial happening is going to develop into something big or is just going to snuff right out. Maybe it is a sentence in a book or a statement by someone on the radio, or a true start, like a flight or a flower or a bird, the alive in us being caught up by the alive in the universe.

I am not writing but 1 have three new canvases on the way. I am being objectively busy making garments for refugees and letting my brain lie lazy after writing Prim Pyramids, which Ruth says is not successful in its human side. The cedars are good. I know that. I ought to stick to nature because 1 love trees better than people. I don’t know humans as deeply. I see their faults above their virtues and they are so hideously self-conscious.

DECEMBER 22nd

the exact time that so many things dawned on me. Particularly is this so in regard to my work. 1 know just when and where and how 1 first saw or comprehended certain steps in my painting development. Of late years my writing has shown me very many reasons for things. I do not resent old age and the slowing-down process. As a child I used to say to myself, “T shall go everywhere I can and see and do all 1 can so that I will have plenty to think about when I am old.” 1 kept all the chinks between acts filled up by being interested in lots of odd things. I’ve had handy, active fingers and have made them work. I suppose the main force behind all this was my painting. That was the principal reason why I went to places, the reason why I drove ahead through the more interesting parts of life, to get time and money to push further into art, not the art of making pictures and becoming a great artist, but art to use as a means of expressing myself, putting into visibility what gripped me in nature.

I have spent a long Sunday in bed. I like staying in bed on Sundays now, first because after the week of pottering busily to topnotch of power I’m tired and tottery and need it. Sunday begins at 8 a.m. when it is still very dark, with the newspaper rattling and the kindling crackling, and the kitchen door opening, and the studio door shutting, and the slip-slop of Alice’s retreating footsteps. Then comes the effort of turning the radio dial and clutching the glass of lemon juice. Both are on the bedside table. “This is London calling on the overseas service of the BBC,” and with businesslike velocity the news is vomited into the room, a mess of war. After fifteen minutes one is quite awake, completely of the earth again and not earth at its best. A tray of beastly melba toast and tea sits beside you and you feel like a stall-fed cow with her eye on the dewy pasture while munching the dry, dusty

hay. Then comes a church service to which I lend an ear while 1 sew for refugees. Then, in my gown, I do the birds with Alice, followed by a bath and dinner, nap. tea. letters and reading aloud. The dogs never move off the bed the day I am in it. At last Alice goes off and I read a little and think a lot and Sunday has gone.

DECEMBER 28tli

Why do inexplicable sadnesses suddenly swell up inside one, aching sadness over nothing in particular? There is generally some self-condemnation at the bottom of the feeling, disappointment w'ith yourself by yourself, or else a disappointment with someone else who makes you mad. ( But in that case

it is more mad than ache that ails you.) I am disappointed in everyone just now. I don’t feel as if there was one solitary soul that 1 could open up to. Sometimes you forget and find yourself opening up. Then, like a stab, the other person suddenly shows that they don’t understand, don't agree, have a different viewpoint, and you bump back on yourself with a thud that nearly stuns you. Morals and religion are the chief subjects for disagreement. I am intolerant? 1 don’t

EMILY CARR

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know. Lying, sham, belief in God, there are only two sides to questions like that — right and wrong. I don’t mean the way of regarding those things, I mean those actual things. To church-goers I am an outsider, but I am religious and I always have been. But I am not a church-goer and my attitude toward the Bishop, whose narrow church views I could not accept, made my family’s disgust of me thunder upon my being and pronounce me irreligious and wicked. I could not sit under a man whose views I despised. It would have been hypocrisy. Alone, I crept into many strange churches of different denominations, in San Francisco, in London, in Indian villages way up north, and was comforted by the solemnity. But at home, bribed occasionally into the Reformed Episcopal, I sat fuming at the mournful, “We beseech Thee to hear us. Good Lord,” and, “God be merciful to us miserable sinners.” They said them in quavery, hypocritical voices, very self-conscious, and I hated it. I wanted to stand up and screech and fling the footstool and slap the prayer books. Why must they have one voice for God and one for us? Why be so conscious of their eyes on the prayer book and their glower on you? Why feel disapproval oozing from them and trickling over you? Why feel yourself get smaller and smaller, wilting like spinach in the process of being boiled? I longed to get out of church and crisp up in the open air. God got so

stuffy squeezed into a church. Only out in the open was there room for Him. He was like a great breathing among the trees. In church He was static, a bearded image in petticoats. In the open He had no form; He just was, and filled all the universe.

DECEMBER 31st

We have come to the end of 1940, and good-by to it. Nineteen forty-one is coming in with a stir and a burst like a baby that is giving its mother an awful time, screaming and shrieking. Will the child thrive or shrivel? It can die. That would break the continuity but God alone knows if it will go from one convulsion into another till we wish it would be out of its agony. I fear that we are a long way from the worst yet. Mercifully we can’t see ahead. Moment by moment is enough. You can always bear the present moment; why anticipate the next hour?

I hate painting portraits. I am embarrassed at what seems to me to be an impertinence and presumption, pulling into visibility what every soul has as much right to keep private as his liver and kidneys and lungs and things which are coated over with flesh and hide. (He’d hate them hanging outside his skin. He’d be as disgusted as the public at the sight of his innards exposed.) The better a portrait, the more indecent and naked the sitter must feel. An artist who portrays flesh and clothes but nothing else, no matter how magnificently he does it, is quite harmless. A caricaturist who jests at his victim’s expense

does so to show off his (the artist’s) own powers, not to portray the subject. To paint a self-portrait should teach one something about oneself. I shall try.

JANUARY 1st, 1941 At a quarter to twelve I put my 1940 light out. Alice and I had drunk some port wine and eaten some shortbread, and later we kissed and wished and separated. I had read from the hymn book this verse:

God the all wise by the fire of Thy chastening,

Earth shall to freedom and truth be restored;

Through the thick darkness Thy kingdom is hastening,

Thou wilt give peace in Thy time. Oh Lord.

Repeating it, I slipped into sleep and did not wake till the half-light of 1941 had dawned.

The radio has bawled and buzzed its string of war events. I feel sixtynine and wonder how I would feel about war were I six or nine instead of sixty-nine. I am glad I had a childhood without war.

FEBRUARY 21st

The inevitable is coming; it is surging over all. Stupendous things are happening moment by moment, terrific forces are at work. The old world is being smashed and ground and powdered. I don’t think we should mourn it so much. All those marvelous cathedrals and churches were built by men who believed and worshipped.

They built them to worship God in. They are now primarily for show. The holiness clinging to them was the holiness of past generations. The young have rooted God from their lives, explained him away with science. Life is nothing without God.

It is the ugliness of old age I hate. Being old is not bad if you keep away from mirrors, but broken-down feet, bent knees, peering eyes, rheumatic knuckles, withered skin, these are ugly, hard to tolerate with patience. I wish we could commune with our contemporaries about spiritual stuff. With death getting nearer it seems to get harder. We think of it often, but rarely mention it, then only in stiff, unnatural words.

MARCH 7 tli

Today Miss Austie took me for a drive round the park and to the Chinese cemetery. The sun was powerful, the Olympics strong, delicate blue, Mount Baker white. The cat bush is already green and the weeping willows round the lake droop with the weight of flowing life, but there are no leaves yet. Everything was splendid. The lend-lease bill has gone through in the States. The war is staggering. When you think of it you come to a stone wall. All private plans stop. The world has stopped; man has stopped. Everything holds its breath except spring. She bursts through as strong as ever. I gave the birds their mates and nests today. They are bursting their throats. Instinct bids them carry on. They fulfill their moment; carry on, carry on, carry on. ★