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Our History: Emily Carr a woman ahead of her time

In Emily Carr: The Incredible Life and Adventures of a West Coast Artist, author Cat Klerks demonstrates that despite numerous setbacks and the disapproval of family and society, Emily Carr proved to be a woman ahead of her time.

In Emily Carr: The Incredible Life and Adventures of a West Coast Artist, author Cat Klerks demonstrates that despite numerous setbacks and the disapproval of family and society, Emily Carr proved to be a woman ahead of her time. Her development as Canada’s most renowned landscape painter in the face of both traditionalism and sexism is a testament to her individuality and her tenacious human spirit. The following is an excerpt from Emily Carr: The Incredible Life and Adventures of a West Coast Artist.

Though Emily had spent three years studying art in San Francisco and five more eking out a living as an art instructor in B.C., it was in London that she would begin her training in earnest. Canada was wild, unpaintable; England was the apex of culture and learning. On paper, studying in London sounded ideal. Yet Emily hated it from the moment she staggered, seasick, down the gangplank onto British soil.

Emily soon found out that the Westminster School of Art was not the place to learn new ideas. For someone who loved to paint nature and the outdoors, the school was stuffy and restrictive. London, where she had hoped to be able to spread her wings, was turning out to be just as stifling as home.

She could not give up, though. To return to Canada too soon would vindicate all the doubters back home. Emily wanted desperately to prove herself. Still, her misfortunes began to wear her down. Emily became irritable and prone to tears, though she did her best to conceal her misery. But her joking manner covered an escalating anxiety.

Her health suffered. It began with a tumble down a flight of stairs. Though she was not badly hurt, she took to her bed and could not summon the energy to get up, even after she recovered from her fall.

A doctor recommended complete rest — she was not allowed to even touch a paintbrush. Finally, after a year and a half in hospital, she was deemed strong enough to leave. In June 1904 she crept home to Canada, a woman broken in spirit.

Her real recovery began when she spent time in the Cariboo region.

The Cariboo was beautiful, untamed country, and Emily was happy.

After two months of bliss, it was back to reality, fending off questions about her British adventure gone horribly wrong. When an offer came to teach at the Ladies’ Art Club in Vancouver, she jumped at the chance.

It proved to be another embarrassment. The genteel ladies of the club could scarcely believe that this awkward, dowdy young woman was the London-trained artist they had heard about. She was fired within a month.

She opted to remain in Vancouver and set up her own studio. She resumed giving lessons to children, who loved her as a teacher. She also had another, more grown-up job as a political cartoonist, though it is hard to imagine a less political person.

There was still so much she felt she had not accomplished. It was not too late. She was still young and idealistic. She’d had a few years to recover from her unpleasant experiences overseas and was intrigued by the rumblings she heard about an explosive “New Art” that was revolutionizing France.

She set sail to France in July 1910.

It was immediately obvious that Paris was going to be much more stimulating than London ever was. A young, bohemian couple, the Gibbs, took Emily under their wing.

Harry Gibb recommended she attend the Colarossi School, unkindly suggesting that she would benefit from working alongside male artists. But it had an impressive pedigree, including Matisse and Van Gogh, a favourite of Emily’s. This was exactly the kind of encouragement she had been craving.

Although, as in England, Emily was pushing herself too hard. She began to get blinding headaches, thus she journeyed to Brittany on the west coast.
Brittany was the perfect blend of the gritty and the romantic, and it was here that she started to come into her own.

It was not only the people of Brittany who opened their arms to Emily. The Paris art world welcomed her, too: the Salon d’Automne was the “rebel Paris show” of the year, featuring the work of the most daring non-academic artists working in France.

Emily submitted a few of her canvases. To her astonishment, two of her paintings were accepted.

Inclusion in the show meant she was not just an amateur, a dabbler from the backwaters of Canada. It meant she was, at last, a real artist. Further, Gibb, in his matter-of-fact way, informed her that she was on her way to becoming one of the foremost artists of her time. It was a remarkable and inspiring comment, somewhat diminished when he specified that he meant one of the foremost female artists. This was the sort of infuriating comment Emily would hear again and again throughout her career.

Soon, Emily began to feel that she had absorbed all she could from her new teachers. She packed up her canvases, stuck her parrot in a cage, and set sail for Canada, triumphant.

Emily was eager to show off all she had accomplished. She held a public exhibition of the best pictures from her year overseas. The bold new style was greeted with confusion in some circles, with hostility and laughter in others. Her work was childish, bizarre, even threatening to the eyes of staid locals. It was a terrible blow. Her success in Paris had convinced her she would succeed on home soil. She faced rejection and public humiliation instead.

Then, after years of neglect, the National Gallery in Ontario was turning its attention to the art of the West. Eric Brown was planning an exhibition for autumn, 1927 that would focus on the artists of the Northwest Coast. It would be a daring mixture of traditional native arts and modern interpretations. Fine art and ancient artifacts would hang side by side. As Emily’s sketches of totem poles and native villages were truly her life’s work, Brown sensed that the works of Miss Emily Carr would bridge the gap between the two. Would he be able to drop by her studio to view her paintings?

She could say no, and that would be the end of it. Her life would continue as it had for years. Say yes, and she would enter the unknown. She’d had years of scorn and rejection and did not know if she could take any more.

But in the end it was an obvious choice.