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Friday, 29 May 2015

Emily Carr

source: Library and Archives Canada
Blog 21

Today, I would like to tell you more about Canadian artist and author Emily Carr (born on December 13, 1871 and died on March 2, 1945). I saw some of her works for the first time at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg during my first visit to Canada in December 1994.

I had not heard of the Group of Seven or Emily Carr before, and therefore did not know about their importance for the Canadian art history. While I liked some of Emily Carr's paintings, I did not know what to make of others. I admired the visual interpretation of the the life of the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, but I have always been fascinated with her later forest scenes.

Over the years, I learned more about the famous Group of Seven and Emily Carr. As a plein air artist, I always look to improve my techniques to be able to capture the essence of a scene. I came across a Emily Carr weekend workshop with one of my favourite instructors, Andrea Mossop, and was intrigued by the workshop description:

“Eccentric, solitary, mystical, Emily Carr gave authentic voice to the experience of listening to the trees. The vibrations of life in nature fill Carr’s intense verdant paintings of British Columbia in simplified forms and rich greens. Following her into this interior world, you will learn her painting techniques, choice of colour and gestural brushwork.”

The goal of the workshop was to learn how to simplify the landscape, and to mix and use different greens in the painting effectively. It was exactly what I was looking for.

However, I learned so much more than just some of her techniques. I can relate to her struggles but also her joy of being part of nature and admire her not only for her painting but also for her writing. Her work is an important contribution to the Canadian art history.

My painting "Emily's Tree, Doncaster Park, Ste.- Adèle", inspired by Emily Carr


Carr's father had encouraged her artistic education, but it was only after her parents' deaths, that Carr pursued her art seriously. Life was not easy for Emily Carr. After attending the San Francisco Art Institute from 1890 to 1892, she continued her studies in England in 1899, but her poor health forced her to enter a sanatorium in 1902.

A trip to Alaska with her sister Alice increased her interest in the life of the First Nations. However, she felt she needed further art instruction, and returned to England and continued to France in 1910. She spent a lot of time plein air painting with John Duncan Fergusson, Harry Phelan Gibb and Frances Hodgkins. She was also influenced by painters like Henri Matisse and André Derain, and started using non-naturalistic colours in her paintings to increase the freshness and strength of her works.

I can relate to the frustration she felt, when an exhibition of her works done from sketches of her visits to the First Nations People, was rather disappointing. She hardly painted for the next 15 years until she met members of the Group of Seven at the exhibition on West Coast aboriginal art at the National Gallery in 1927. Carr got inspired to paint again. Lawren Harris supported and influenced her the most during the following years.

I am sure all artists have had moments when they ask themselves why they continue painting if nobody wants to buy their works. I certainly have had such moments after an unsuccessful show. Luckily, I have friends who remind me of the fact that we paint because we will be unhappy when we do not express ourselves in our art. We do not paint for success, although it would still be nice to be appreciated. We paint because we feel the need to do so.

Another big influence for Emily Carr was the American artist Mark Tobey who encouraged her to concentrate on drawing and observing the forms of nature. During this time, Carr produced some of her best charcoal and watercolour sketches.

I can also say that I have had mentors who have helped me to grow. Today, my painting buddies often fulfill this task but sometimes the inspiration and support comes from people outside the art scene who give me new ideas and opportunities for projects.

In the 1930s, Carr purchased a caravan to be as close to nature as possible. At this point she primarily painted with oil paints. It was Carr's desire to introduce movement, and texture into her work with visible brushstrokes and by moving her whole body to express her emotions.. The thinned oil made it easier for her to introduce light and air into her work.

While I love my moments in nature and enjoy the painting trips with several painting groups, I could not imagine giving up my life in comfort. Running water, electricity, heat, the closeness of shops as well as cultural institutions are very important to me. I am also a very social person and cherish my strong relationships with family and friends.

I will never paint like Emily Carr, and for me that has never been the purpose of any of the workshops I have taken. Instead I try to take whatever works for me and use it when I paint. Just experimenting with a looser brushstroke and mixing many different greens with few colours was an important exercise. The most important message from Emily Carr is however to be present in my painting.

Once you start painting, feel the motion as if you are in the trees, the sky, the ground. Paint very loosely, moving your whole body, and do not paint outlines.


What is your favourite female painter? Did she influence your vision of the world around you? I would like to hear from you, so please leave a comment.

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