I can’t remember when I first saw an Emily Carr painting. It may have been in High School during Art History; it might have been in Winnipeg during a Native Art unit; it could have been earlier than that in a book, in a museum, or on TV. What does matter is that ever since I saw my first Emily Carr painting I have felt connected to her as a painter, as well as to her paintings and to her philosophy of painting.
While thinking of Carr’s works I can’t help but ask this question: Have you ever tried to retell someone else’s story? I know I have and it never goes well: you forget important details, rearrange the events, change names, and skip seemingly uninteresting elements. I think that is what caused Carr so much angst about her passion to paint from her experiences of Native villages. In fact, one of the main draws I have towards Carr’s artwork is her ability to share her experiences. She does not retell stories (like detailed images of First Nations’ totems or carvings) because the stories do not belong to her, yet she shares with the viewer her experiences of these stories.
After I graduated from University, I decided I needed to go on my own and rejuvenate. I chose Victoria because it meant that I could visit Carr’s house, walk the streets she walked, and visit Beacon Hill Park.
Although I did not love The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland (I don’t like her writing style), I couldn’t help but finish this book for some of the insights it gave me into Carr’s motivations for painting and her philosophy about representing nature.
Carr was a radical and I know that she did not fit into Victorian society, in both senses of the word (the ideals of the time and the city). She was unique in that she experienced God in nature and wasn’t afraid to talk about it openly: “I get a sense of some presence breathing there [Stanley Park in Vancouver]. God’s too big to be squeezed into a stuffy church, but I feel Him there in the spaces between the trees” (pg. 56).
Later in the book, Vreeland writes that “God breathes in the forest” (pg. 140). For Carr painting was making that connection between God, artist, art, and viewer. Her experiences in different Native villages and in the forests of British Columbia were deeply spiritual and she struggled with how to express her connection with others. When asked in the novel why she paints totems she replies, “To express their spirit, or my response to them. To make them send the drumbeats I hear when I’m standing in front of them” (pg. 133).
One of my favourite Carr paintings is “Indian Church.”
“Indian Church,” 1929
In the book, Vreeland has Carr ask, “Don’t you want to just inhale those colors?” (pg 55). I feel that connection between the spirituality she grew up learning about and the deeper spirituality she experiences while in the forest and in creation in her painting “Indian Church.” Carr did not shy away from God in her eccentric lifestyle, yet instead embraced God and His creation, both in people and in nature. Through Vreeland’s book I was able to gain a better understanding of my favourite Canadian artist and even question myself about where I find Spiritual connections in my own life.
“Old Time Coast Village,” 1929-30
One of my summer projects around my apartment this year is to get my print of “Indian Church” framed so that I can be reminded of Carr’s desire to share her experiences and spiritual connections with nature.
I think that one’s art is a growth inside one. I do not think one can explain growth. It is silent and subtle. One does not keep digging up a plant to see how it grows (Emily Carr).
See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. (Matthew 6: 28-29)