Emily Carr must have been quite a woman. She smoked a pipe and sometimes swore at her art pupils, ran a boarding house and bred dogs to earn money, and spent her life learning and growing as an artist. A Canadian artist who lived between 1871 and 1945, she is well-known for her work documenting the people and totems of the First Nations of the Canadian Northwest.
Much has been written about Emily Carr, from various biographies to the somewhat fiction of Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover. Carr wrote prolifically herself, from autobiographical works to a hilarious book of cartoons chronicling a trip to Alaska with her sister. The facts of her life are a bit of a mystery — she sometimes contradicted herself in describing her incredible life. These are fascinating reads to be sure, but what I love about Emily Carr are her trees. I had an opportunity recently to go to Vancouver, B.C. and see some of Emily’s trees in person.
Capturing the feeling of the forest
The Vancouver Art Gallery has a substantial collection of Emily Carr’s works. Her immersion in the forests themselves came during the last part of her painting career, after she spent many years painting the totems and villages of the coastal Northwest.
If you have ever visited a forest in the Pacific Northwest, you will know that they feel intrinsically different from the forests of eastern North America, and distinct still from the dry mountain west. These forests have plentiful water and lush vegetation. During Emily’s time, their isolation from logging meant that she was able to experience the overwhelming green presence of the forest as its own living, breathing entity. This is what she captures in her earlier forest paintings.
Part of her success in capturing these feelings comes from her unorthodox use of materials. She was constantly economizing so that she could continue to paint prolifically. So that she could go paint on site in the forest, she invested in manila paper as a substrate and made a cardboard hinged portfolio that was easy to carry. She used “good quality white house paint thinned with gasoline” so that her oil paints flowed like watercolors and dried quickly, but were also opaque and felt substantial.
Emily Carr as environmentalist
The appetite for raw lumber in British Columbia was voracious, with much of Vancouver Island being decimated by clear cutting during her final painting years. Thus, Emily’s later work becomes an environmental commentary. She anthropomorphized trees, calling the tree stumps she captured in her work “screamers.” Last week, the State of Indiana unnecessarily sold nearby older growth forest land for clear-cutting, so her characterization resonates with me.
One of my new favorite works of Emily is Above the Trees. As a result of her painting logged forests, she became more aware of skies. My non-flash image does not do this work justice — the intensity and activeness of the blue sky makes me think of a heavenly fingerprint above tree spirits.
Emily Carr is now a celebrated artist both in Canada and beyond. She has a school of art named after her, and her life is now the subject of much scholarly discourse. But throughout her life she was mostly alone and unappreciated, living at the edges of a society that did not support women as artists. For her tenacity in every day life and for her dogged pursuit of her vision, I am eternally grateful. Nice to see you in person, Emily.