A Lesson From Emily Carr (1871-1945)

I’m in Vancouver for a visit with my daughter and today I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the Emily Carr paintings. She willed 157 of her paintings to the Art Gallery in 1945 but most of them are in storage or on loan. However about 20 of them were on display today and coupled with contemporary artists who are depicting similar themes such as the First Nation village life, the forest and the symbology that comes from West Coast First Nations cultures.

Emily Carr
Young Pines and Sky, circa 1935
oil on paper
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust

I think that no one has captured the power, feeling and mood of the magnificent ancient British Columbia forest that was still evident when Emily Carr started painting it almost 100 years ago. Yet even Emily became discouraged about her work and almost stopped painting during the 1920’s. Instead, she earned her living renting out rooms, and making and selling the most god-awful looking pottery souvenirs.

I knew that she’d made pots, but hadn’t seen them until visiting the Vancouver Art Gallery today. Emily appropriated ‘indian motifs’ in her pots and ashtrays without really understanding the context.

The exhibition juxtaposes quilts made by BC author / artist Douglas Coupland who has stitched ‘souvenir’ First Nation motifs into his creations. Coupland has also imagined a dialogue between him and Emily about their work and it plays in the room where the pots and the quilts are displayed. I thought it was a clever way to talk about the appropriation of culture!

I wish I could show you photos of the exhibit, but photos are not allowed; the Vancouver Art Gallery does not have paper brochures about their exhibits; the website is also very sparse in terms of description and imagery of their exhibits.

Emily Carr, Loggers’ Culls, 1935
oil on canvas
69.0 cm x 112.2 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery.  Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

I’ve been thinking all day about this wonderful artist who set aside her brushes to create ‘saleable’ ashtrays and dishes. Thankfully Lawren Harris (yes, the Group of Seven Lawren Harris) invited Emily to a show in 1927 that sent her back to her oil paints.

Emily Carr, Strangled by Growth, 1931
oil on canvas
64.0 cm x 48.6 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

I’m thinking that Emily’s period of self doubt is a very good lesson for all of us.  Rather than abandoning the art that seems ‘non-commercial’ and trying to make saleable items, like Emily’s ashtrays, we need to follow our passions and stay on course. We must dismiss those doubts and follow our creative hearts even when (pardon the pun) we can’t see the forest for the trees.