Emily Carr Pilgrimage
Deep bow to the artists who were ahead of their time, whose talents were overlooked in their day but whom the zeitgeist is now rounding up. Like: come back, right now. We need you.
Emily Carr is so overdue for a second run. I’ve come to think of her as the first real Canadian whose ancestors haven’t been living here for a few thousand years. If you had to pick just one artist whose name to whisper in the ear of a new immigrant to Canada (especially Western Canada), you could not do better. Eccentric, visionary, multimodal. Painter, writer, accidental social critic. Brave as hell and twice as prickly. Unofficial eighth member of the Group of Seven – Canada’s first modern art movement. A large spirit in a country that prefers its spirits contained.
It was time to devote a day to the old curmudgeon.
From here in North Van, a Carr Day is pretty convenient, since this whole area was her proving ground. The towering primeval old-growth forests she brought to life in almost Van Gogh-like fashion were right here, and the last remnants still are: it’s what they’re fighting to protect at Fairy Creek.
But a proper pilgrimage takes you to where the life began, or ended, or preferably both.
So we hopped on the ferry to Victoria.
MORNING: THE CRADLE
The Carr family’s yellow California Dream House doesn’t look out of place on leafy Government Street, in the heart of gentrified James Bay. Now it doesn’t. But back in the 1860s, when Emily’s father, a prosperous and pious British merchant, had it built to raise his five kids in, it stood out like a footman in a brothel. It was the only civilized thing standing in what was basically the wild frontier. Victoria was an HBC fur trade outpost, and the whole south tip of the island was a bit of a den of iniquity – which Emily appreciated. She was a bohemian spirit in a straight-laced family, beguiled by the native canoes coming up the Gorge waterway, hungry to get out and see everything. Out behind Carr House sits the trailer she used to fill with art supplies and and get the horse to tow out into the wilderness. She called it The Elephant. Her pet monkey rode shotgun on these trips. His name was Woo.
A great little hour-long tour takes you through Carr House, where all five kids were born and raised. Everything’s painstakingly restored to evoke Emily’s time, and the comfortable life she found pretty uncomfortable. The fancy bathroom with its clawfoot tub collecting the first running water sent to any private home in Victoria. The gong in the corner that “the Chinaboy” (yikes) would strike to call the family to dinner. The big table where the family mustered on Sunday evenings and her father made everyone re-tell that morning’s sermon. Emily was not down with Dad’s evangelism. She trained a crow to attack the missionaries who came around.
I thought there’d be some of her art up on the walls (or at least reproductions of the famous pieces that have their own dedicated room at the Art Gallery of Vancouver). But that wouldn’t have been faithful to history. Her family didn’t think much of her stuff.
AFTERNOON: THE BOOKS
Not many great painters are also great writers. Emily was both. The published writing came much later – she didn’t get a book out till she she was almost 70, after her heart was giving her trouble and her doctor told her her painting expeditions were over. Fortunately, she’d been keeping journals for most of her life, and now was the time to mine them for stories.
We spent the afternoon with her books. I picked The Book of Small – a lightly fictionalized memoir. Carr believed all thinking stems from wonder, and “all wonder is sparked by physical sensation.” True enough, this book is chock full of her almost childlike apprehension of things.
Meanwhile, Jen dug into Klee Wyck — which if you had to pick just one book is probably the better choice now, in Canada’s moment of reckoning with our treatment of First Nations people. Carr was taken with the “Indians” outlook on nature and life, and wanted to capture it as best an outsider can. It helped that she was a teenage girl with no agenda but to bear witness. She’d get dropped off on the outskirts of, say, a Nu-Chah-Nulth village, with her paints, and her notebook, and just sort of eventually win folks’ trust. Carr was suspicious of the residential schools, and advised the Indigenous mothers not to let the government take their kids. She built deep bonds in those communities.
Carr was shocked when Klee Wyck was published.
But it was censored.
Anything derogatory about missionary work: gone. Anything critical of the residential schools: gone. Any unshaded praise of the old aboriginal ways (as against the supposedly more civilized colonial ways): gone.
Emily Carr without her honesty is not Emily Carr – and really not worth much. Eenough people recognized that that another version, the true original version, was eventually published.
It won the Governor General’s award.
EVENING: THE GRAVE
In Ross Bay cemetery, past the headstones of coal baron Robert Dunsmuir and “hanging judge” Matthew Begbie, a little sign points to the most-visited grave of all. If this were Pere LaChaise, Emily Carr would be its Jim Morrison.
And there it is: just outside the canopy cover of the big pines and junipers. The family plot. Many people have left tokens of respect. There are brushes and pencils and painted rocks. People often leave roses, for Emily liked to paint the rose bud blooms that pressed up through the trash — the rusty cookstoves and piles of medicine bottles — in the town dump. I’m not sure what the little jar of honey is about.
I like the idea of leaving a personal tribute to the life.
But we have forgotten to bring anything. We should have brought Penny: a dog can smell someone who loves animals more than they love humans – probably even through the ground, probably into the next world.
Fitting that Emily is in the family plot and not buried next to a proper English husband. She had no husband. Though not for lack of one guy trying, proposing to her every day for a month before finally getting the message. Emily had no interest in being deprived of her productive solitude.
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