What would Emily Carr think?
The Canadian icon whose First Nations coastal art paintings and Pacific forest landscapes placed Victoria on the world art map was born in Victoria 150 years ago. In recent years, the two subjects she most sought after as a painter have become major social, political and economic issues in British Columbia.
If she were alive today – and yes, it would be impossible even with recent medical advancements – what would Carr think of last year’s findings at former residential schools? What would she think of the fight to save British Columbia’s last old growth forests?
We know Carr rejected many aspects of his upbringing. As the second youngest child born to English parents committed to British traditions and customs in a city considered more English than England itself, she grew up in a culture of the British Empire, rights and superiority largely undisputed. Her family was conservative, conformist, religious, and God-fearing.
In 1890, a few years after her parents died, young Emily persuaded her guardians to allow her to spend part of her inheritance on travel, tuition, and board to attend an art school in San Francisco. It was his first step in a lifelong rebellion against the expectations of family, community, class and education.
She continued to choose her own path. She refused to go up in the Amazon like an English first. She decided to stay single to focus on her career – a very unusual decision for a young woman in the early years of the 20th century.
She traveled to France in 1910 for the express purpose of studying “what was this ‘new art’ about,” she writes in her autobiography. Growing pains (1946). âSomething moved me, but I couldn’t understand what it was at first. I saw immediately that this made recent conservative painting tasteless, small, unconvincing. “
Fascinated by First Nations cultures and their art, and reveling in the rugged landscapes of British Columbia, she traveled along the coast to the interior, staying in remote villages and getting to know their people as she traveled. ‘she painted them, their buildings and their art, as well as the ancient forests.
She spent many summers living in cabins, under canvases and – her favorite – in a trailer that she outfitted and would park in Goldstream, Metchosin, the Highlands and other places in the region, where she painted, with her dogs, a monkey, parrot and domestic rat within easy reach.
All of these choices, adventures, inspirations and aspirations place Carr outside the mainstream society and thought of the early 20th century in Victoria. She was eccentric. She was a maverick.
Either she was ahead of her time or she lived in the wrong place to be truly appreciated for her independence, opinions and talent. Her efforts, for example, to introduce the public in British Columbia to modern art went largely unrecognized, and she sold few paintings to locals.
From a modern perspective, she befriended many First Nations people she met on her painting expeditions. She opposed residential schools and the break-up of Native families to eradicate their traditions. In the manuscript of his first book, Klee wyck (published in 1941), it openly criticized the attitudes of missionaries towards Indigenous peoples. (Her editor and friend Ira Dilworth, principal of Victoria High School, cut these passages before publication.)
It’s not to idolize Carr. Her appreciation for First Nations cultures and art is perhaps the reason she set out to document the longhouses and totem poles of the villages she visited. But driving Carr was also an underlying colonial belief, common at the time, that these cultures were disappearing. No one can escape their education entirely.
Stories shared with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and last year’s residential school findings justify Carr’s century-old views of the damage caused by missionaries and residential schools.
If she were alive today, I suspect Carr would be horrified on a deeper and more personal level than most of us today. Stories of abuse and neglect concern children from families she has known on her painting expeditions. She may even have known the children.
Plus, she might well sympathize with the protesters in Fairy Creek. She may even have joined the blockades.
Carr turned away from Aboriginal art painting to capture the wilderness, color and movement of the West Coast forests only late in her career. Even then, she recognized that these, like the First Nations communities, were under threat.
Among his later works are Despised as wood, beloved by heaven; Tips; Trees in the sky; and Sun and tumult, which document the transformation of the forests of the Victoria region into cut blocks and stump fields.