A crazy woman
June 26, 2006
One day, when I was four years old, I was riding in the back
seat of my grandfather's 1936 Hupmobile. Passing through Beacon
Hill Park in Victoria BC, I spied a lone woman on a stool with
a big easel. "Look, Papa, an artist," I said. My grandfather--I
can still see the expression on his face--looked over his
shoulder and confided, "Her name is Emily Carr. Some people
think she's crazy."
Within a few years of that occasion, the crazy woman had passed
away and then there were only her paintings and writings.
Widely recognized toward the end of her life, Emily was a
unique product of a Victorian upbringing, a West Coast vision
and the influence of modern mentors. Emily is one of my
favorites--if not always for her paintings, for her words and
her spirit. Her remarkable books started appearing in 1941. In
them we get a glimpse of the anxieties and joys of a creative
pioneer--an original thinker with an attitude.
"When you really think about your hand you begin to realize its
connection, to sense the hum of your own being passing through
it. When we look at a piece of the universe we should feel the
same," she says. Emily felt the hum and found a way to respond.
Painting in the "marvelous modern manner," she wondered if she
might "ever feel the burst of birth-joy, that knowing that the
indescribable, joyous thing that has wooed and won me has
passed through my life." Emily was a spiritual being who
responded to the great forests and the native cultures of our
coast. She was a quirky loner, who hoisted the chairs of her
studio so guests would not have a place to linger. For those
she "found interesting," she might just lower one down.
Too young to test her hospitality, I nevertheless ingested her
writing. Her words got me going. "There is something bigger
than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood,
the vastness, the wildness." This wildness took both of us away
in boat and camper, on voyages of discovery and countless
sorties of unfinished business. "Sincerity itself is religion,"
she told me, and I believed.
It was with Emily that I first glimpsed the brotherhood and
sisterhood of artists. I was pleasantly surprised that her
concerns were mine: "You always feel when you look it straight
in the eye that you could have put more into it, could have let
yourself go and dug harder."
PS: "Over and over one must ask oneself the question, 'What do
I want to express? What is my ideal, what is my objective?
What? Why? Why? What?'" (Emily Carr, 1871--1945)
Esoterica: Over the years I've placed my bottom on the same
spot where Emily tarried and painted--as if I might catch some
of her spirit. In dark times and in bright, it's been difficult
not to have her around. "Let the movement be slow and savour of
solidity at the base and rise quivering to the tree tops and to
the sky, always rising to meet it joyously and tremulously. The
spirit must be perpetually moving through, carrying on and
inducing a thirst for more and a desire to rise." I attended
her grave at Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria. Her inauspicious
stone reads, "Artist and Author, Lover of Nature." What more
could anyone want?
Current clickback: If you would like to see selected,
illustrated responses to the last letter, "Breaking the curse,"
as well as a gallery of Emily Carr paintings, please go to: