The Ghost of Emily Carr

Canadians love Emily Carr. They didn’t back when she was still alive, an eccentric woman who didn’t follow society’s rules for her, but decades after her death, this artist and writer is hitting her stride. A Carr painting sold in 2009 went for $2 million. In Victoria, a bronze sculpture of her, complete with signature hair net and pet monkey Woo, greets tourists as they enter the garden area near the Fairmont Empress Hotel. A short walk away, her childhood home is on display for those who love her writings, art, or both.

(For a look at Carr’s art, click here. For a look at her books, click here.)

The sculpture apparently sets some peoples’ teeth on edge because it conveys the oddities of the woman and not her genius as an artist and writer. “This is a sculpture for tourists,” one critic complained.

Carr was well ahead of her time, a woman who chose not to marry in order to marry her art. She spent time in the forests of Vancouver Island, living with First Nations People and drawing images of their lives, including totem poles that European settlers later took down.* She lived in Victoria during its beginnings, born upon the arrival of the railroad, and her writings are rich with description of life in the city that hadn’t yet developed.

Though she struggled most of her life for money (even turning her back on art for 15 years to run a boarding house), she managed to scrounge enough together to study in San Francisco and, later, Europe. Fascinated by the post-Impressionists, her work took on new depth and dimension when she combined her love of Canadian nature with the influences of her European teachers, creating extraordinary works of vivid color and expression.

Though she had always kept journals, she turned seriously to writing late in life, when ill health kept her from traveling to her beloved woods to paint. Her writing gave her recognition, which then led her to Canada’s legendary Group of Seven, Canada’s finest artists of the time. She found a level of success at about the time she could no longer paint.

Carr was considered a “difficult” woman. Her legendary rudeness occurred when she thought young artists were lazy, or when someone was trying to interfere with her own art-making time. As someone who often gets snappish when I feel that others are trying to usurp my work time, I relate to her.

I thought about the many male geniuses whose bad behavior was often excused. Picasso, anyone? Or, we just saw a documentary on Bob Marley, whose influence on reggae and music in general still astounds — but who also seems to get a pass for less-than-stellar behavior. We women, on the other hand, are supposed to be “nice” no matter what. Some things haven’t changed since Carr’s time.

Sitting in her childhood home, I was overcome by her courage and forthright individuality. She reminded me, in her way, to get on with it — to create and to learn, to continue to seek out my own vision for my work. Like Emily, I love nature and animals, but am less comfortable with people. Like Emily, I have often felt a sense of isolation, of not fitting in, which often shows up in my fictional characters. Yet what fascinates me is that Emily Carr, in spite of what people thought, kept on with her craft, creating until the end of her days. I am a sucker for resilient people.

Let me be like Emily and to always create no matter what!

What artist, writer, or other figure has influenced you in your work? Do tell!


*Emily’s reputation has endured some controversy about her painting of Native totems. Though it is believed that the First Nations People of her generation supported her desire to preserve the images, other modern First Nations People see her as appropriating their work. In her writings, she herself struggles with her inability to comprehend fully the experience of native life. She also rails against the fashion of the time of “converting” and “civilizing” native peoples. Unfortunately, many of her reflections were edited out of her first book, Klee Wyck, leaving many First Nations People with an inaccurate impression of Carr.

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