The other Emily

by Leslie Campbell, March 2011

Political cartoonist, singer, mandolin player and...social butterfly?

I’ve always found it gratifying that Victoria’s most famous person is an artist—a female artist whose passion for this place and the natural world lit her art aglow. But like many present-day artists, Emily Carr had to struggle to practice her art—and be patient for recognition. She was 56 when she “emerged” on the national arts scene. Perhaps that helps explain the common perception of Carr as a rather lonely old eccentric who preferred pets to people. 

When I expressed an interest in “The Other Emily,” an exhibit starting in March at the Royal BC Museum, I was invited to the museum’s “vaults” where I was treated to a fascinating show-and-tell—a modest preview of what is being billed as “the first-ever exploration of the artist’s life before she became famous.” 

There was drama aplenty in Carr’s young life: One of six siblings, she lost her mother at age 15, her dad a couple of years later and her only brother in her 20s. She attended art schools in San Francisco and England (where she also suffered a breakdown). She took numerous painting trips up this coast recording scenes from First Nations villages. She experienced financial hardship and illness. She also sang in performances and played mandolin and guitar; taught art classes; and worked as a political cartoonist for The Week, a Victoria newspaper. 

In the museum’s vault I learned from curator Kathryn Bridge that each of the displays in the new exhibit will be rooted by an archival photo. Some are simple portraits of Emily as a girl or young woman; another shows her at painting class in England; others show her at work or play out in the great outdoors she loved so much.

The photos, with blown-up details, are combined with interpretive text, some of Carr’s letters and sketches during that time period, artefacts depicted in the photo, and one of Emily Carr’s own works. Two of the 20 Carr paintings on display have never been seen by the public before. 

But the aspect that makes it a truly unique museum exhibit is the inclusion of newly-created artworks by local artist Manon Elder. Bridge credits Elder as the catalyst for this exhibit.

Known for her portraits of prominent Canadian women, Elder had started painting the young Emily Carr, using a photo of her as a guide, in 2001. Elder says she worked on it every year right through to 2010—it kept evolving with her own growth and understanding of Emily. “I kept adding and changing—for example, the mauves in her collar and the background were only added recently. It’s like a diary,” explained Elder. The now completed painting portrays a beautiful, pensive young woman, one who looks a little shy. 

When she contacted curator Kathryn Bridge a couple of years ago, Elder had already created a few paintings of young Emily. She was on a quest to understand the young artist. Bridge was intrigued: “It seemed like a really good way to give Carr back her youth.” And she was also drawn to working with an artist on the project, though she admitted: “It’s not the sort of exhibit we’ve done before, so it’s kind of scary.”

Elder agreed to complete 18 paintings in total, each based on different archival photos, but interpreted, expanded, and made colourful by her brushwork.

Elder told me she painted furiously, sometimes for 12 hours at a stretch. A kindred spirit of Carr, she made it her own personal journey through the history of art, experimenting with different colour palettes and styles. One looks like a Renoir, another like Warhol, yet another like Picasso. Others employ a number of styles—Elder pointed out Lawren Harris’ mountains in the curtains in a large painting of Emily at art school in Cornwall, England.

In a four-by-eight-foot painting based on a photo of Emily and two friends at Haida Gwai, backed by the forest and a totem, Elder relies on a bright Manet-like palette. As we looked at this painting in the vault, she explained that a lot of painting is done with vertical strokes, but Emily used many horizontal lines (think of her wavy tree branches). Elder found herself trying them out and enjoying the sensation: “It’s so different. I felt like I was painting with the energy of things, the flow...” Even so, that painting took nine months to complete.

As Elder whipped her large paintings out of their slots in the vault, I could see she’s been a woman possessed—which no doubt helped in getting all her work done in time for the show. Elder herself finds it hard to fathom how she completed the paintings. “It must be the call of Emily!” she said with a shrug.

While Elder was painting up a storm, curator Bridge scoured the museum’s considerable documents, paintings and other Carr-related treasures. The Royal BC Museum has 1200 works of Carr’s art alone (that includes sketchbook pages, with about 100 actual paintings), and the archives house reams of letters, notebooks and diaries. 

Kathryn Bridge, a serious academic and a woman who knows her Emily down to any date you wish to explore. She also curated Royal BC Museum’s 2001-2002 exhibition, Emily Carr: Artist, Author, Eccentric and Genius, and is the author of a number of books on pioneering women. For this new exhibit, Bridge dug deep into Emily’s correspondence to figure out the story behind the photo, trying to understand each phase of Carr’s journey as an artist and human being. Her painstaking research led her to realize that some photos had heretofore been dated incorrectly. 

Down in the vault, Bridge and Elder were clearly excited about what they described as their amazing journey of discovery. 

Like many, I am familiar with the Emily Carr who, in order to keep body and soul together, ran a boarding house and rather reluctantly made clay pots for tourists—and who took up writing in her 60s. While I greatly admire the old Emily, I am looking forward to learning about The Other Emily, the one Bridge predicts will “make you reassess who she is.” The letters and diary pages in the exhibit reflect Carr’s extensive relations with people, providing many intimate glimpses into her personal life. What comes through loud and clear to Bridge is that Carr “was a person grounded in family and friends, and from that strong backing she was able to set forth.” 

In other words, it takes a community to raise such a spirited artist and personality.

Editor Leslie Campbell thinks Emily would like this edition with its celebration of female visual artists and writers. Happy International Women’s Day, March 8. And read more about “The Other Emily” at www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.