The Biography of Emily Carr

Meggie M. Bisson

Emily Carr was a Canadian artist and writer born on December 13, 1871 in Victoria, British Columbia. Raised in the English traditional ways, she developed an early passion for arts, nature, and animals. Even at a very young age, she had interest in western aboriginal cultures. Her father encouraged Emily to pursue her artistic inclinations, believing that she truly had talent in this domain. Unfortunately, her parents died at a very young age and she was left alone with her other sisters to take care of the family.

In order to escape her older sister's strict rules, she decided to go study Arts at the San Francisco Art Institute for two years (1890-1892). Her works were mostly inspired by the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. She then came back to Victoria. It is then that she started her first sketching and paintings, visiting aboriginal villages to get inspired. In 1899, she travelled to London to study at the Westminster School of Art. She also travelled to a rural art colony in St-Ives, Cornwall, but decided to come back to British Columbia in 1905. During a holiday trip to Alaska in 1907 with her sister Alice, Emily Carr visited other indigenous people and decided that she would use her art to document people on Natives' life, customs, and traditions.

In 1910, she decided to leave Canada for the Académie Colarossi in Paris, France to study the evolving artistic trends. Carr learned from a number of instructors how to paint in a Post-Impressionist style. She came back to Victoria in 1911 and began a collection of art pieces inspired by the First Nations cultures of British Columbia. Comments and remarks about her work were quite disappointing; therefore she gave up painting for nearly fifteen years to manage a boarding house with her sisters known as the ''House of All Sorts.''

After fifteen years of menial and monotonous household work, Emily Carr reconsidered painting and arts. In 1927, her work was included and recognized by the National Gallery of Canada. That same year, she met the Group of Seven who was a group of Canadian landscape painters originally consisting of Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. Carr was mostly inspired by Lawren Harris's work and began a lifelong friendship with him. During the first years of their meeting, he acted as a spiritual guide and mentor for her.

From 1937, it became physically harder for Carr to travel for sketching trips among aboriginal tribes because of health issues such as several heart attacks. She decided to focus on her literary talents due to her health condition. Her writings were originally broadcasted on CBC Radio and were praised by the population. The same public who had ignored her work years ago now recognized her talent, her passion, and her devotion for nature and the Natives. In 1941, she published her first book Klee Wyck with the help of her friend Ira Dilworth, a professor of English.

''My mother-in-law wishes to know why you have come to our village.'' ''I want to make some pictures of the totem poles.'' ''What do you want our totem poles for?'' ''Because they are beautiful. They are getting old now, and your people make very few new ones. The young people do not value the poles as the old ones did. By and by there will be no more poles. I want to make pictures of them, so that your young people as well as the white people will see how fine your totem poles used to be.''

Emily Carr died a couple of years later in Victoria on May 2, 1945 not knowing that she would become a Canadian icon.

Emily Carr's landscape paintings were inspired by many movements: Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, and Abstraction, but she never took any side to a particular movement. Her last paintings showed her unique style: gorgeous spiritual skies, deep and darkened forests, and impressive totemic structures. Her inspirational themes remained the same through her living: the ''vanishing'' Native tribes and the western landscape.

I glory in our wonderful west and I hope to leave behind me some of the relics of its first primitive greatness. These things should be to us Canadians what the ancient Briton's relics are to the English. Only a few more years and they will be gone forever into silent nothingness and I would gather my collection together before they are forever past (Shalbolt 38).

Carr wrote several books that were published before and after her death: Klee Wyck (1941), The Book of Small (1942), The House of All Sorts (1944), Growing Pains (1946), The Heart of a Peacock (1953), and Hundreds and Thousands (1966). Some of these books are autobiographical and demonstrate Emily Carr's passion and devotion to the Native tribes and the western landscapes.

Carr's famous painting ''The Crazy Stair'' was recently sold $3.39 million at the Toronto art auction. Her paintings represent thoroughly the mythical Western aboriginal cultures and their surrounding nature.

Emily Carr's paintings and writings brought Canadian art to a new height and gave a truthful representation of the First Nations people of British Columbia. She was a devoted, passionate, and creative woman that dedicated her art to preserve Natives' rights, traditions, customs, and culture. She will be remembered for the greatness of her art and for her commitment to Natives' fate.


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