“I don’t want to trickle out. I want to pour until the pail is empty- the last going out in a gush, not in drops.”
Emily Carr said that to her family and friends who tried to stop her from going to paint in the forests of British Columbia in the last years of her life. Dealing with ongoing mental and physical health challenges Emily was determined to continue painting. She said to a friend, “I must go into the forest again. The forest still has something to say to me and I must hear it.”
An article in Maclean’s magazine written a few years after Emily’s death in 1945 says “trees danced for her and she made them dance in her paintings. Gangling treetops were ballet dancers bowing to nature.”
Never one to bow to the conventions of society Emily would camp out in the woods later in her life in a large caravan she dubbed “The Elephant” with her menagerie of animals- her dogs- she raised sheepdogs and had many other canine pets. She also had cats, a pet monkey Woo, a white rat, a parrot, canaries and chickens.
Emily is one of the artists featured in a current exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery called Defying Convention. Emily snubbed convention in so many ways. She was a troublesome child who tore her clothes climbing trees and fences. She talked to cows and embarrassed her sisters with her outspokenness. She studied in Europe in 1900 and again in 1910 but her paintings didn’t sell when she returned to her home in Victoria British Columbia. They were too unconventional.
Spending time in First Nations communities in British Columbia was certainly an unconventional thing for a single unaccompanied woman to do in the early 1900s, especially traveling there in a dugout canoe and by horseback. But Emily did just that. She forged many important relationships in these communities and her First Nations friends nicknamed her Kleewyck- ‘The Laughing One.’ Emily documented the totem poles and scenes of daily life in the villages she visited.
Even Emily’s appearance was unconventional. Defying the fashion trends of the day she dressed in loose-fitting smocks, wore orthopedic stockings and covered her hair with a net cap.
Emily made a living by running a boarding house and was known by her tenants for her eccentricities and her quick temper. She only had time to paint after a busy day of tending to her house and boarders and pets.
Emily’s statement at the beginning of this blog post that she didn’t want to trickle out of life certainly came true. In the last five years of her life her career as a writer flourished and ‘gushed’. Her first book Klee Wyck won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1941 and her second novel The Book of Small was named Book of the Year in Canada in 1942. Just before her death in 1945 she completed her autobiography Growing Pains.
Even after her death Emily defied convention by becoming a success when many people thought she never would. Sadly she did not live long enough to witness the eventual popularity of her artwork. Emily usually sold her paintings for $35-$50. In 2013 a painting of Emily’s sold for over $3 million.
The Defying Convention exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery includes work by Emily Carr and many other women who defied convention in various ways as they tried to find a place for themselves in the male-dominated art world of the early 1900s.