Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021

Emily Carr first visited aboriginal villages in 1898, at age 27, and said later that her time in one of them, Ucluelet, “made a lasting impression on me.” She painted "War Canoes" on a later visit after she had studied in France which is reflected in her brighter palate.

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Medicine and the Arts

10 things you need to know about Emily Carr

1. Radio (not art!) made her a household name

Painter and Canadian icon Emily Carr had to wait a lifetime for the nationwide recognition that eventually came her way. She was first introduced to a broad Canadian audience in 1940 at age 68, not as a painter, but as a writer, when CBC Radio broadcast stories from her book Klee Wyck, a chronicle of a summer spent with West Coast First Nations people in Ucluelet in 1899 when she was 27. The book was written mostly in bed, as Carr was recovering from a 1937 heart attack. By then she had all but stopped painting. In 1941, she received a Governor General’s Award for non-fiction for Klee Wyck, which is still considered a significant volume in Canadian literary history.

2. Klee Wyck was heavily edited

Emily Carr is best known for the observations that she made of the West Coast First Nations people. Her paintings of totem poles and wooden villages set against the majestic brooding coastal rainforests have become quintessential Canadian images. Carr was born and raised in Victoria, BC in a society that was “more English than the English.” Her perspective on the First Nations people she met were certainly a product of the culture she knew, but which she also worked hard to distinguish herself from. The result was a predictably colonialist attitude — one that believed the First Nations cultures were dying — coupled with a deep appreciation for First Nations people and their art. She strongly opposed the residential schools saying “Why should native people send their children away to become ashamed of their people’s tradition?” These viewpoints were lost to the public, however, when the passages in Klee Wyck where she openly criticizes missionary attitudes towards native people were slashed from the manuscript by Ira Dealworth, her editor.

3. She brought Fauvism and Post-Impressionism to Western Canada

Until 1912, when Carr exhibited 70 of her boldly coloured canvases from her time in France in a Vancouver gallery, no one in the city had heard of Fauvism. Carr had moved to France in 1910 to study “the French style” with modernist painter Henry Gibbs whose use of vibrant colour and distortion shocked and delighted her. Returning to Canada, she travelled north to recapture the art of the Haida, Glitxsan and Tsimshian in her new Post-Impressionist style. This style would evolve in time to become more and more her own, though she never crossed the line into abstraction. She did form a friendship with Mark Tobey, an abstract expressionist from Seattle, but said of herself, “I was not ready for abstraction. I clung to earth and her dear shapes, her density, her herbage, her juice. I wanted her volume and I wanted to hear her throb.” She found affinity with American landscape visionary artist Charles Burchfield, whose 1930’s solo show she visited in NYC used lines to indicate sound and motion. On the same trip, she met with painter Georgia O’Keefe, who may have inspired Carr to further develop her own visual language by encouraging her to practice making large charcoal drawings, just as O’Keefe had famously done in 1916.

4. Canada rejected her Modernist paintings

Carr hoped that her bright new canvases depicting native West Coast scenes would be of value to her country. After several painting trips north where she completed many of what would eventually become her best-known works, such as Big Raven and Tanoo, she organized an exhibit and gave lectures about the native villages she had visited. Those interested in the ethnographic value of her paintings claimed that they were not realistic enough, while others simply didn’t warm to her style or her subject matter. Although she did receive some positive reaction, she decided that there was not enough enthusiasm to support her career in Vancouver. She vowed to stop making and teaching art, and moved back to Victoria where she built a rooming house she called The House of All Sorts with the remainder of her inheritance and virtually abandoned her paintbrush for the following 15 years to become a landlord, cook and housecleaner.

5. She suspended her chairs from the ceiling

Life with tenants was not easy. When she could, Carr would retreat to an attic room upon whose ceiling she had painted an eagle in the Haida style, its proud head a reminder to keep her spirit intact. Claiming that she favoured an uncluttered space, she attached the parlour chairs to pulleys and kept them hoisted out of the way, though some believed this was a tactic to discourage visitors. Having made a strategic career decision not to marry when she was in her 30s, she sought company in a menagerie of creatures. She bred English sheepdogs, raising 350 puppies before she decided running a kennel was too much work. When she closed the kennel, she traded her last dog for a Javanese monkey named Woo who, along with her yellow-and-green Panama parrot, a Persian cat named Adolphus, a couple of white rats, a chipmunk, a budgie, hens, rabbits and three Brussels Griffons, became the source of much merriment.

6. The Group of Seven told her “you are one of us”

Her painting drought blessedly ended when her work came to the attention of Marius Barbeau, a prominent ethnologist at the National Museum in Ottawa. In 1927, Barbeau persuaded Eric Brown, Director of Canada’s National Gallery, to visit Carr, and from there, everything changed for her. Brown immediately invited her to bring 26 of her oil paintings to be exhibited in Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern at the National Gallery. She travelled to Ottawa where she met the Group of Seven who were astounded by the originality and modernity of her work and immediately welcomed her into their ranks, telling her, “You are one of us.” Of particular significance was the mentorship of Lawren Harris, who introduced her to European symbolism and encouraged her to immerse herself in her connection with the Canadian wilderness and give up painting the art of another culture.

7. She thinned her paint with gasoline

In the next few years, Carr’s relationship to her materials evolved from the use of charcoal sketches and traditional oil paint on canvas to an oil-on-paper medium. She bought big stacks of cheap manila paper and mixed her oil colours into white house paint she thinned with gasoline. The result gave her inexpensive materials she could experiment with and a paint that was as fluid and fast-drying as watercolour. She rented “some tumbledown shack too lonesome to be wanted by summer campers” and disappeared into the woods with her dogs and monkey. In 1933, she purchased a camper van she called “the Elephant,” which further increased her freedom. She remarked on the joys of her travelling home upon noticing its contrast with her House of All Sorts: “[The] van was so much nearer the big outside, just a canvas and a rib or two, and then the world. And the earth was more yours than this little taxed scrap which is under your name.”

8. Her heart failed her

Carr considered herself a sturdy person. She travelled fearlessly by boat and through wilderness, and even claimed to have been the first woman in Victoria to ride cross-saddle. But her health was not perfect. In 1899, just before she left for five years of painting study in England, she had to have one of her big toes amputated after it was damaged in a carriage accident. The slow-to-heal amputation combined with the pressures to either be successful as an artist or get married may have contributed to her complete breakdown in 1903. She spent the following year in a sanatorium in Suffolk, under strict orders not to paint. Her next trip to Europe was similarly clouded by ill health. She contracted diphtheria just before she left for Paris in 1910 and spent her first few weeks in the city in bed. In her 40s, she suffered an unsuccessful gallbladder operation, and in 1937, she had the first of three heart attacks, the last of which resulted in her death in 1945 at age 73. Around the time of the heart attacks, she also had several major strokes. When her health declined, she once again gave up painting — but this time writing was there to take its place.

9. Her paintings (finally!) sell for millions

Though she is now widely considered one of Canada’s best artists, Carr’s reputation was slow to build. Most Americans, even art aficionados, fail to recognize her name. But a few significant shows in the last decade have given her a boost. In 2001, Carr, O’Keefe, Kahlo: Places Of Their Own at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe incorporated Carr into the North American tradition of ruggedly individual women artists. Then, in 2012, seven of her most illustrious paintings were selected for dOCUMENTA (13), the prestigious international art showcase held every year in Kassel, Germany. Carr was the first Canadian ever accorded this posthumous honour. Her work was also brought (as last!) to an English audience at the venerable Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London around the same time as the Kassel show. To top it all off, in 2013, The Crazy Stair (also known as The Crooked Staircase) became the third most expensive Canadian artwork sold at auction when it went for $3.39 million.

10. Nature was the focus of her life

Throughout her life, her relationship with nature remained a constant source of nourishment. She was an avid reader of Ralph Waldo Emerson and kept a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with her at all times. A journal entry from March 1934 is reminiscent of the great transcendental American poet. Carr writes: “Dear Mother Earth! I think I have always specially belonged to you. I have loved from babyhood to roll upon you, to lie with my face pressed right down onto you in my sorrows. I love the look of you and the smell of you and the feel of you. When I die I should like to be in you uncoffined, unshrouded, the petals of flowers against my flesh and you covering me up.”

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