Art

WILD WOMAN OF THE WEST

Trailblazer Emily Carr is captivating art lovers more than ever before

KEN MACQUEEN June 11 2001
Art

WILD WOMAN OF THE WEST

Trailblazer Emily Carr is captivating art lovers more than ever before

KEN MACQUEEN June 11 2001

WILD WOMAN OF THE WEST

Trailblazer Emily Carr is captivating art lovers more than ever before

KEN MACQUEEN

Who were you, Emily Carr?

Did you really frighten the neighbourhood children with your eccentricities? Was art your only lover; could it ever be satisfied? What was it like to hold it in your hands, creating a forest with the end of a brush, capturing in paint the soul of a totem in decay? Did art excuse your romantic intrusion into aboriginal life, or were you a user, too, no better than the missionaries you loathed ?

Some 56 years after her death in 1945, Emily Carr, perhaps Canadas premier woman artist, is under examination g as never before—in two major exhib| its of her work and life; in a poignant œ new biography, TheLaughingOne, by Susan Crean (HarperCollins, $32), even in dance—The Brutal Telling: A Portrait of Emily Carr by the Vancouver company Mascall Dance is currently touring Scotland. If she were still alive today, such attention would likely confirm Carr’s ambivalent opinion of fame. “I don’t give a whoop if the public likes my stuff or not—and they don’t,” she once pronounced famously, if not quite honestly.

While her art continues to define—in greens, blues and browns primarily—British Columbia’s rainforest cycles of growth and decay, Carr the person is as elusive as a shadow in the trees. But a show opening on

June 30 at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., a short drive north of Toronto, will help shed light on Carr’s role as a pioneering female artist, featuring her alongside American Georgia O’Keeffe and Mexican Frida Kahlo. And in a long-overdue tribute in her home town of Victoria, last week the Royal British Columbia Museum opened a bewitching and revealing 10-month exhibit, Emily Carr: Eccentric, Artist, Author, Genius. The show offers ample evidence of all four propositions. “It’s the whole Emily Carr,” promises Pauline Rafferty, the new executive director and chief executive officer of the museum.

Carr was a true child of the province, born in Victoria in 1871, the year British Columbia entered Confederation. Her mother died when Emily was 14, and her father, a prosperous merchant, died two years later. She was raised, in declining

‘Carr’s life (and love life) is a portable enigma like the Mona Lisa’s smile’

circumstances, by the eldest of her four sisters. Emily’s singleminded pursuit of art—which extended to a rejection of a marriage proposal—often set her at odds with her family, and certainly with the accepted aspirations of women of her time.

Add to this a mercurial temperament, an acid tongue and an everchanging menagerie of animals: dogs, parrots, squirrels, a white rat and Woo, her pet monkey. Imagine a middle-aged woman pushing a baby carriage filled with animals down the streets of Victoria, accompanied by a monkey on a chain, says Kathryn Bridge, an archivist and curator of the 430-square-metre exhibit. “That’s got to be eccentric even by today’s standards.”

Using photographs as a guide, museum staff have re-created “the Elephant,” the grey wooden caravan Carr would get hauled to remote village or forest sites. There, with only her pets to relieve the isolation, she’d paint for weeks at a time, at least when she had the funds.

Hoping for a steady income, in 1913 she built a boarding house, which still stands on Victoria’s Simcoe Street, around the corner from her grand childhood home at 207 Government Street, a short walk from the legislature. The result was a heap of frustration—art, she said, was “smashed out of me flat”—and a motley collection of tenants she celebrated in The House of All Sorts, one of several books she wrote in the final years of her life.

During lean times, she bred dogs, drew political cartoons for local publications and churned out ersatz Indian-motif pottery and lamps for the tourist trade.

Singer Bryan Adams, a fan of all things Carr, has donated dozens of pieces of her pottery from his collection to the exhibition.

Some are kitschy beyond belief, but all are dutifully signed Klee Wyck, meaning “laughing one” in the language of the Nootka people, a name given her while she was painting in Ucluelet on Vancouver Island.

Much of Carrs work was inspired and informed by the aboriginal villages and totems that fired her imagination as a young painter. For all of the restrictions on a woman artist of her time, in one respect she was freer than her counterparts today. As a white person she could interpret aboriginal life without being accused of cultural appropriation. “Today, it would be challenged,” curator Bridge says of the artists aboriginal themes. “Times have changed. Aboriginal people are well aware of their own culture and they are responsible for documenting that culture.”

Carr’s fascination with aboriginal culture was shared by O’Keeffe and Kahlo. Places of Their Own, the forthcoming show at the McMichael, puts Carr—who for all her bluster was uncertain of her success—in lofty company. “These are the three outstanding women artists of the 20th century in each of their respective countries,” says Sharyn Udall, curator of the show and an art historian at the College of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Although one of Carr’s paintings sold at auction in Vancouver last year for more than $ 1 million, Udall says she is the most undervalued of the three artists. O’Keeffe’s work sells in the $2-million

to $3-million (U.S.) range, and a self-portrait of Kahlo recently went for more than $5 million. Udall hopes the exhibit, which travels to New Mexico after closing at the McMichael on Sept. 9, and opens next June at the Vancouver Art Gallery, will help Carr to become “much more familiar to U.S. audiences, and more widely appreciated.”

Yet even in Canada her iconic status is constandy under revision. Crean’s biography opens with a daunting run of questions. Agent of colonization? Genius tempered in pain? Neurotic, sexually repressed social misfit? Rebel in an age of conformity? “Which version of the Carr story are we to believe?” asks the author. It’s not even clear if Carr ever had a lover— male or female. Perhaps her passion was saved for the moist embrace of the rainforest. “Carr’s life (and love life) is a portable enigma like the Mona Lisa’s smile,” Crean writes.

Your home on Government Street is now a museum, Emily. The curator, Jan Ross, lives there with her family, making it a warm and welcoming place. A cat dozes in the bedroom where you were born. The dining room looks as it might have after you returned from studying in France, a 39-year-old yearning for the solitude ofB. C. forests. The table is strewn with sketches full of colour and feeling, freed of the slavish literalism of the past. Did your sisters understand in this riot of emotion that you were lost for normal pursuits? Did they sense what one art historian calls your “fear of the unpainted”?

And did you wear your eccentricity like armour, to save your vulnerable core? So many questions, Emily. We marvel at your legacy today, unable to understand its cost. ED

Schools of shame

Emily Carr’s paintings speak for themselves, but in her writing, the artist’s sense of social justice fell victim to an unknown editor. In one of her autobiographical books, Klee Wyck— winner of a 1941 Governor General’s Award—Carr was ahead of her time in criticizing the impact of church-run residential schools on aboriginal life. Those views were among several sections inexplicably cut from subsequent editions of the book after her death in 1945. Archivist and curator Kathryn

Bridge discovered the excisions while assembling Emily Carr: Eccentric, Artist, Author, Genius, which opened last week at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. “What is available now is quite different from her original manuscript,” she says, “and quite different from her first edition.”

In this extract from the original, a missionary asks Carr to urge Louisa, a native acquaintance, to send her children to residential school:

“I want to ask you to try to use your influence with Louisa and her husband to send their boys to the Industrial board-

ing-school for Indians. Will you do so?” asked the Parson.

“No.”

The Missionary’s eyes and his sister’s glared at me through their spectacles like fish eyes.

“Why will you not?”

“In Louisa’s house now there is an adopted child, a lazy, detestable boy, the product of an Indian Industrial School, ashamed for his Indian heritage... Why should she give up her boys?”

“But the advantages?”

“And the disadvantages!”

Ken Mac Queen