Emily Carr, Red Cedar, 1931-33  

Emily Carr

Emily Carr’s ah-ha moment: as were her own garments so were the leaves on the trees.

And from that moment, she had a way to the tell the forest story, a clear direction, a path to signature.

Emily Carr was a product of “beautiful British Columbia.” In her later years she was drawn to paint out in the wilds, working and living out of an Airstream mini trailer.

She was also, deeply moved by the indigenous peoples of North America and their art. Their work freed her from the prescriptions of western art. The indigenous stylized their forms; they taught her to invent. The works are rich in metaphor, they are “idea art.”

Initially, Carr had the goal to make paintings about all of the indigenous works she could find. Her attempts were awkwardly amateurish. How could a flat, relatively small painting capture a sculpture, layered in meaning that commands a space and is changed by light? Instead the renderings become almost a mockery of their majesty. She did not have the skill to invent on the sculptures or give them new meaning. Although she intended the paintings to be about the sculptures, her narrative was confusing. Were the paintings about the sculptures or about her other love, the forest?

Carr failed at making images of the sculptures, but, they would become her teachers. If a totem could be about individuals, gods or events, but expressed through metaphor, what is the metaphor of the forest? The BC forest grows at high elevation and latitude, but is relatively temperate. There is a canopy of protection, each tree folding upon another tree. The sunlight in the forest is indirect, dappled. There are small pockets between the trees, almost rooms. Then the ah-ha moment: the leaves are acting as drapery. The forest is cloaked in rich winter velvets, then in the summer, gauzy linens, that let in just enough light.

Additional thoughts :

  • The only artist that I have seen successfully invent on Indigenous sculpture is Brian Jungen, he is not an outsider, he is one of their own. The rest of us need to “back off.”

  • Bravo to Canada! In the USA we celebrate Georgia O’Keeffe, a far less inventive painter. But, she knew the right people.

  • One negative note, Carr’s paint quality is inconsistent. In some of her paintings she has thinned the paint with too much turpentine. I don’t know if this was to save money, or if the works are unfinished.

—Marjorie Masel
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