There will never be another Canadian artist like Emily Carr, who died at age 73 in 1945 and was an honorary member of the Group of Seven. Genius that she was, today’s audience of art lovers would never get to experience her talent. In these liberal, see-yourself-as-victim-first times, her masterful work would never get off the ground. Her penchant for painting and writing about, and even living with, Canadian aboriginals would be denounced immediately and ferociously by the cultural misappropriation police. More on that later. Thankfully, Carr -- who, though pursued by several potential partners, never married or had children – made it to national treasure-hood.
As the book’s title indicates, from almost the beginning, Carr agonized in both her painting career and her non-professional life, typifying in some ways the quintessential image of the struggling artist who in the end becomes a reverberating success. There is only one word – along with its derivatives – that adequately describes her art productions: stunning. Her writings, including four books, all of them autobiographical to some degree, are also engrossing and delightful. The subject of this book review, Growing Pains – one of two books by Carr published posthumously -- portrays her as whip-smart, hilarious, caustic and oh so patriotic.
Anyone who has discovered the joy of gazing at oil paintings created in the modernist and post-modernist age knows well how these illustrations can capture your imagination, make a mockery of your sense of reason and flow efficiently into your psyche, just as Vincent Van Gogh’s blue “Irises” does so smoothly on a gloomy spring day. Painting in the same general period, though a somewhat later time than the Dutch post-impressionist, Carr was less interested in poppies and other vase-filled designs than she was in Canadian landscapes, churches and portraits of Indian chiefs and totem poles.
Indeed, Carr – the second youngest of nine children whose parents had passed away by the time she was 19 -- loved visiting Indian lands, and returned to them often throughout her life. From her first stay at a mission house on Vancouver Island in 1898, she discovered her innate adoration of everything outdoors, a part of herself that clashed powerfully with her deep, urbanized English roots. So enamoured was she by life in the wild that her first experience in an Indian village at age 27 impacted her art and soul for the rest of her life.
The first time she went to stay in a Native community, it was almost by accident, as she was casually invited by a religious missionary working with her sister. Emily excitedly agreed to go to the tiny west coast village near Ucluelet for the express purpose of making art. The indigenous people there -- called Nootka by the English but formally referred to as the Nuu-chah-nulth – welcomed her and the accompanying missionaries, but not exactly with open arms. “The slow, heavy Indians had not decided whether or not to accept religion,” Carr wrote. “They accepted missionary ‘magic’ in the shape of castor oil and Epsom salts. But religion? They were pondering.”
Carr discovered when she landed in Ucluelet that she was no city girl, though referring to her hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, where she was born and died, as a “city” could be considered a stretch in the late 19th century. “No part of living was normal,” she wrote in Growing Pains of Ucluelet. “We lived on fish and fresh air. We sat on things not meant for sitting on, ate out of vessels not meant to hold food, slept on hardness that bruised us; but the lovely, wild vastness did something to it all. I loved every bit of it – no boundaries, no beginning, no end, one continual shove of growing – edge of land meeting edge of water, with just a ribbon of sand between.”
More significantly, she discovered that those talented professional painters she trusted to disseminate art knowledge were wrong. “To attempt to paint the western forests did not occur to me,” Carr wrote, describing her earliest career opinions. “Hadn’t those Paris artists said [they were] unpaintable? …. I would have to go to London and to Paris to learn to paint. Still, those French painters who had been taught there said, ‘Western Canada is unpaintable!’ How bothersome!” Thus, she hardly tried to produce anything important: “I nibbled at silhouetted edges. I drew boats and houses, things made out of tangible stuff. Unknowingly, I was storing, storing, all unconscious, my working ideas against the time when I should be ready to use this material.”
One of her enduring successes was preserving and uplifting beautiful parts of aboriginal culture, which she naturally saw as moribund and threatened. By today’s guidelines, she handled the native community in a kindly but patronizing way, an unforgivable miscalculation in contemporary social regulations. If her work with aboriginal culture is legendary and unparalleled, its success is not universally recognized. By the 1980s, Carr was being harshly criticized for cultural misappropriation. Given today’s hair trigger accusations of this kind against any white person’s effort to describe or portray aboriginal life, it is a safe bet that, if Carr had lived 50 years later, she would not have produced her spectacular and introspective Indian art. She would certainly never have written Klee Wyck, an endearing collection of short stories telling about her experiences in aboriginal villages and for which she won the Governor General’s award in 1941.
By the 1980s, books by writers of European descent on aboriginal culture were different in critical ways. For one thing, they were intensely politically correct, focusing only on native victimhood caused by colonialism and all its subsequent and ongoing "violence." It may not be wrong philosophically to, as a society, focus on blame and victimhood, but it is an extremely difficult cycle to break, as we are witnessing decades on. One book that lead the way in such matters is Dispossessed, Life and Death in Native Canada, by Geoffrey York of The Globe and Mail, a copy of which the author very kindly handed to me soon after it was published in 1991. It is concerned with the torturous existence of Native Canadians and their understandable rising militancy against their oppressors and situations. The cadence and phraseology in the book are so negative and hopeless, I could not read past chapter two, though my opinion is not a reflection of the volume’s general readability; it stayed on The Globe and Mail’s best sellers’ list for 48 weeks.
After learning about Carr’s penchant for the outdoors, it is not surprising to read how much she hated London, England, her parents’ birthplace. She called it “unbearable” when she was being polite and in a generous mood. Some times and areas of the city were better than others, she explained, for instance on Sundays when the streets were unpopulated because the stores were closed and everyone was in church. She also appreciated the parks, such as the famous Kew Gardens, though the restrictions at these natural oases were burdensome. The gates were plastered with so many annoying rules: “Nobody is allowed in these gardens unless respectably attired. No person may carry a bag, parcel or basket into the gardens; all such impedimenta [no, that is not a typo] to be checked at porter’s lodge,” and so on.
Having trouble breaking into the artists' world back in Canada, she had to toil to get paid. Among the jobs she detested, but needed to do to make ends meet, included running a boarding house and teaching. She despised being a landlord, but not as much as she hated teaching art to unappreciative students. But she hated neither of these jobs as much as she hated displaying her precious art to intensely negative critics. “In spite of all the insult and scorn shown to my new work I was not ashamed of it,” she wrote of one of her Canadian shows. “It was neither monstrous, disgusting nor indecent…. What would Westerners have said of some of the things exhibited in Paris – nudes, monstrosities, a striving after the extraordinary, the bizarre to arrest attention.” At one point she said, “I would rather starve” than acquiesce to the demands of reviewers.
There is not a scintilla of doubt that, if we were able to glimpse her early school report cards, they would sternly emphasize, “Emily does not play well with others.” But in the end her life did indeed work out well, and she eventually caught the attention of, then revelled in the support of, some significant people. Her appreciation for the help given to her by Lawren Harris, one of the earliest members of the Group of Seven, as well as several important others in the art world, who saw the obvious potential and beauty in her work, is described in loving terms in Growing Pains.
Dear Carr friend Ira Dilworth -- professor, musician, conductor, editor and CBC employee -- wrote that he was honoured and at a loss for words to write the Foreword for Growing Pains. Yet, he stated eloquently: "I know how courageous your life has been, how dauntless your purpose, how unshaken and unshakeable your faith that this is not all, that we go on. I know how intensely you have felt the influence of nature -- its loveliness, its deep solemnity, its mystic, overwhelming power to strike awe and sometimes terror in our hearts." To complete his thoughts, Dilworth felt the need to append with the calming, subdued Thomas Hardy poem Afterwards, which wistfully asks how the reader will look upon the artist after death.
This book, like almost all books reviewed on Lynne's Likes, is available on Amazon.ca