There are many reasons to admire the iconic Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr. Her significance in the Canadian art world is obvious, but my appreciation for her expands beyond her talents with the paintbrush and the pencil.
First, a bit about Ms. Carr’s life and work.
Emily Carr was a Post-Impressionist and Modernist artist, inspired by the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast; in fact, First Nations people on Vancouver Island named her “Klee Wyck” (The Laughing One.)
Ms. Carr was both born and died in Victoria. In the 74 years in between, she studied art in San Francisco, London and Paris. She also taught art in Vancouver.
Her father, Richard Carr, was born in England and firmly believed in the ability to have a lavish, traditional English lifestyle in the colonies. It seems that Ms. Carr wasn’t as interested in being what we may think if as a proper English lady, however. She had difficulty remembering her Bible verses, pursued her art seriously after her parents’ deaths, traveled to rural art colonies and remote Indigenous villages and only held a teaching role at the Ladies Art Club for a month before students began boycotting her classes because she smoked and swore in class!
Ms. Carr was an innovative artist and one of the first Canadians to adopt a Modernist, Post-Impressionist painting style. As a writer, she was one of the earliest chroniclers of life in British Columbia.
Initially focused on painting Indigenous themes, her work didn’t receive wider recognition until she started painting landscapes. She was awarded the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction in 1941.
In 1945, this Canadian icon passed away at the James Bay Inn in Victoria, British Columbia. She is buried at Ross Bay Cemetery where her grave was initially unmarked despite her fame and accomplishments! In 1963 the Victoria Historical Society placed this simple granite plaque on her grave, where artists still leave pencils and other items in tribute to her today.
Why is she so admirable beyond her creative talents? In my opinion, the way Ms. Carr lived and worked put her ahead of her time. She lived life on her terms without much worry for convention.
Ms. Carr was reportedly a woman who spoke her mind. The way she acted as a teacher, her menagerie of exotic pets and her independent spirit have caused her to be labelled as “eccentric,” but I appreciate her independence and unwillingness to compromise her personality.
Moreso, Emily Carr pursued a relationship with and had deep reverence for the environment and for First Nations, at a time when few in the colonies would have treated Indigenous people as equals or been concerned about the health of the planet.
While there is no question Emily Carr was blessed with creative gifts, these are the traits I respect the most about this Canadian icon.
If you’re ever in Victoria, Canada, I encourage you to visit the historically significant, beautiful and reportedly haunted Ross Bay Cemetery to pay your respects.