As Americans we are all aware of the ongoing beef between us and our maple leaf brethren to our north. Trey Parker and Matt Stone even took things a step further and came up with an official anti-Canada song. I get it, Americans and Canadians aren’t too fond of each other. Regardless of how much we blame each other and poke fun, they brought us the artistic interpretation of Canada’s landscape as seen through the eyes of Emily Carr. Carr is a master of the paintbrush and pen and she’s, you guessed it, Canadian. If such great works of art came from one of the country’s citizens, it can’t be that bad, right?
Emily was born December 13, 1871 in Victoria, British Columbia. By the way, British Columbia became a part of Canada the year she was born. Emily was an artsy youngster and her parents took notice. Her father encouraged her to further explore her interest in art. Sadly, she didn’t take her talent seriously until the early 1890s, after the death of her parents. The nearest art school was in San Francisco, so to San Fran is where Emily moved. She was there two years before returning to Victoria.
In 1898 Emily began sketching and painting what she saw while on her trips to aboriginal villages. Her main inspirations came from visiting Ucluelet, an area on the western coast of Vancouver Island. Here is where she observed the Nuu-chah-nulth people, known to English speaking people as the ‘Nootka.’ The next year Emily traveled to England to deepen her knowledge.
Once in England Emily spent most of her time studying at the Westminster School of Art in London. She also spent some time at various art studios in Cornwall, Bushey, and Hertfordshire. Her studies paid off. Her hard work and dedication to art allowed Emily to become involved with the St. Ives group and Hubert von Herkomer’s private school. In 1910 she spent a year studying at the Académie Colarossi in Paris and elsewhere in France before moving back to British Columbia permanently.
Discouraged by her lack of success, Emily contemplated giving up art altogether. In1905 she took a teaching job in Vancouver at the Ladies Art Club. After a few years the travel bug bit Emily again. She vacationed in Alaska where she dedicated a part of her holiday to using her own art to document the artistic history of the aboriginal people she encountered. The totem poles of the coastal Kwakwaka’wakw, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit communities guided Emily back to where she belonged, in the studio making art.
“I glory in our wonderful west and I hope to leave behind me some of the relics of its first primitive greatness. These things should be to us Canadians what the ancient Briton’s relics are to the English. Only a few more years and they will be gone forever into silent nothingness and I would gather my collection together before they are forever past.” -Emily Carr
The 1920s and 30s were when Emily’s work gained the recognition it deserved. Marius Barbeau, a leading ethnologist and the National Museum in Ottawa, caught a glimpse of Emily’s work and brought it to the attention of Eric Brown. In 1927 Emily got the visit of a lifetime. As it turns out Eric Brown was the Director of Canada’s National Gallery. He personally invited Emily to become a featured artist in an exhibition on West Coast aboriginal art. Of course she accepted! She submitted 26 oil paintings along with pottery and rugs.
The following spring Emily timed her trip to the exhibition so that she would be able to meet with members of the Group of Seven, Canada’s most recognized modern painters who specialized in Canadian landscape. Did I mention they were all men? Her careful, and slightly sneaky, planning paid off and she met the infamous Seven. They loved Emily’s work and she was invited to submit some work for one of the Group of Seven exhibitions. Her relationship with the group was long and successful. They deemed her the ‘Mother of Modern Arts.’ Three cheers for Emily!
Due to unforeseen circumstances, Emily’s method of artistic expression changed in 1939. She suffered a stroke and had to write instead of paint. With the assistance of her friend Ira Dilworth, Emily was able to write and publish her first book, ‘Klee Wyck,’ in 1941. The title came from a nickname given to her by the Nuu-chah-nulth people. It meant ‘the laughing one.’ The book won the Governor General’s Award the same year.
Emily died in Victoria on March 2, 1945. Her passing couldn’t have come at a worse time. She died just before she was to be awarded with an honorary doctorate by the University of British Columbia.
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