Emily Carr is a name synonymous with words such as “artist” and “Canada,” but I would also like to add in “environmentalist” and “writer” too. She was a woman of many talents, whose legacy lives on. Emily Carr is perhaps best known for her mesmerizing portraits of Canada’s west coast and Native cultures.
Early Days of Emily Carr
December 13rd, 1871, was the day that Emily Carr was born into the world. The location was Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. If that place sounds familiar, it may be because you’ve heard me talk about it; yes, that is where I currently live.
Carr grew up in Victoria with English parents (Richard and Emily), one brother and four sisters. Her parents had three additional sons, but they either died at birth or soon after death. Carr’s father encouraged her in her artistic inclinations as a child. She took art lessons however she did not seriously begin her painting career path until after he had passed away in 1888. There was no documented artistic history in Carr’s family.
After the death of both of her parents, Emily Carr travelled to San Francisco to study art. At this point she was a late teen. Following that experience, she went to England. These travels were where she acquired her basic painting skills. Much further art skill development came when she later went to France. In France, the freedom of expression was vast and welcomed, which allowed her an openness to her artistic methods. There she began to practice more modern ways of painting. She studied for one year at the Academie Colarossi in Paris. The subject? Art.
Development as an Artist
By the 1920s, Emily Carr decided to return to Victoria. It was at this point that she had a major development in her artistic career. She began to meet with the Group of Seven, which was a circle of Canadian landscape painters. Within this group, and with their influences, she began to paint about Native culture and the rainforest in BC. In attempts to learn more about the customs and lifestyles of the First Nations people, she sought out time with the tribes within their villages.
Her painting drew the attention of Eric Brown of Canada’s National Gallery. The Director of the Gallery, Brown invited Carr to place an exhibit of West Coast aboriginal art. The Ottawa-based Gallery exhibit was such a success that it also travelled to Toronto and Montreal. The exhibit consisted of 26 of Emily Carr’s oil paintings, as well as pottery and rugs she made that had aboriginal-influenced designs on them.
As well as being known for her paintings, Emily Carr has also been acclaimed for her writing efforts. She made the transition to writing after her health declined. In 1937, when she had a heart attack and a second one in 1939. This was followed only one year later by a stroke.
She wrote several novels, many of which documented her time spent with the First Nations groups. Her book Klee Wyck published in 1941 and it won her the Governor-General’s Award for nonfiction. It was an autobiographical book of her experiences with the First Nation’s people, and it also included her sketches. Other books by Carr include The House of All Sorts (published in 1944) and The Book of Small (1942 publication). Carr passed away on March 2, 1945.
Reflections on Emily Carr
Carr never married. Perhaps she assumed that if she became a wife then a child would soon follow and that might get in the way of her career. Indeed, this issue is still one for many people today, unsure whether work-family balance is possible.
Carr is well-known for her love of nature, animals and cultures. She bred dogs as an adult and had a range of pets that varied from birds to rats. Likely her pets were her children. She also loved travelling across BC, as was apparent by her paintings of the local area.
Emily Carr is admirable to me personally for several reasons. She grew up in the same city I grew up in and, like me, she left the city for a short time only to return again later. As well, she was a creative spirit from childhood, as was I. Also, I admire her because of the magnificent works she created of her local area on Canada’s west coast. While she had travelled abroad, it was right in her homeland that she took to painting and enjoying the nature around her. In addition, her artwork clearly illustrates her love of nature, culture and freedom.
As well, when Emily Carr was growing up, women were not taken seriously as being contributors to society in Canadian cities outside of Toronto and Montreal. Carr’s paintings, sketches and books showed that women could make valuable contributions to society. She revealed the beauty of women in addition to the beauty of Canada’s landscapes.
Today, Emily Carr’s legacy lives on. She is often referred to as a Canadian icon and is undoubtedly one of the best-known artists in our country.
In British Columbia, the Emily Carr University of Art and Design offers students opportunities to earn a Bachelor of Design, Fine Arts or Media Arts Degree. Her legacy and artwork are well known not only in Canada but around the world as well.
Is there a female artist who you admire?
©2015 Christy Birmingham