When someone tells me I should care about something I usually don’t. And that’s how I felt about Emily Carr.
I know, I know… But when I moved to the West Coast, and to Victoria, she was just so ubiquitous. It felt touristy. Her imagery is everywhere, she is the city’s claim to fame. To be honest my eyes would just glaze over.
One day last spring we were visiting the BC Archives and ended up in a large room in the basement that was full of art. We poked around a random collection of framed works mounted on rows of metal grills. Ann, our guide, pulled one out that was covered with watercolours and sketches of trees and totem poles.
“Are these Emily Carr?” Yes they were.
I can’t remember who said it, but something to the effect of “they aren’t her best pieces,” meaning that’s why they are just sitting in that room and not up in a gallery somewhere. I took a closer look.
The pieces were random, imperfect, vibrant, sketchy, and alive. That’s where it finally hit me: She was real. She was there.
She went to that village, she sat right there under that totem pole and she drew it. Alone in the early days of colonial British Columbia, boated into remote communities by locals, hitching a ride on a horse and cart, in all types of conditions. Inspired by the art and traditions of the First Nations people who informed her later interpretations of the land she loved so much.
Standing in that basement looking at Emily Carr’s “not so great” work under fluorescent lights is where everything changed for me. Where I first saw a cash grab, I now saw a young woman who challenged the expectations of her time and her people. She was an outsider who took solace in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest and made capturing its energy and spirit her life’s work. She carved a path that was uniquely her own until the day she died.
On a beautiful sunny day this summer I stopped by the Ross Bay Cemetery. Just underneath a huge pine tree on the northern edge of the cemetery is a patch of warm dry grass, and there lies Emily’s grave. I had seen a sad, lonely little marker when I looked it up online but what I found was neither. The marker is there, but all around it is the evidence of many visitors. Fallen pinecones from the tree above have been collected and piled lovingly around it. The area is like a sweet-smelling cozy little nest. Paintbrushes and pencils are stuck into the ground, and little messages, painted rocks and carvings nestled in. A newer memorial stone has also been added with a poem that’s the perfect illustration of how she felt about the natural world, and her place in it:
“Dear Mother Earth! I think I have always belonged to you. I have loved from babyhood to roll upon you, to lie with my face pressed right down on to you in my sorrows. I love the look of you and the smell of you and the feel of you. When I die I should like to be in you uncoffined, unshrouded, the petals of flowers against my flesh and you covering me up” —Emily Carr
I’m thankful to have found Emily in my own way, and I’ll find a nice spot to put a pinecone the next time I go visit her.
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