Emily Carr, artist and coloniser: mutliple identities

The Canadian artist, Emily Carr, died in 1945, leaving behind her stacks of paintings, many of which you can see via the Vancouver Art

Little Pine by Emily. www.bertc.com

Little Pine by Emily.

Gallery website at Emily Carr paintings. A friend on a trip to Vancouver sent me a postcard of one of her paintings of the British Columbia woods and that is how I first got to know about her. As a lover of trees I found this painting very intriguing, the way she made it seem like the trees were dancing, so I looked up more of her work.

Of course, any Canadians reading this will know both her art work and the many writings she did in her later life, as she is now a part of the Canadian post-colonial identity and history – a controversial figure because of her interest in, and use of the art of the First Nations back in those colonial days. Power, gender, ethnicity and creativity are complex strands running through her life and work.
I was struck by the extraordinary passion and vitality of her later paintings of the woods and landscapes of British Columbia and wanted to know more. Reading about her life and work in her own words, and those of others, raised many questions for me. Why did she break out of the conventions of being a white, middle class woman deposited in these ‘new’ lands’ as part of the British colonial flow of labour and capital across the world in the late nineteenth century? She managed to study art in England, America and France. She also undertook long and difficult journeys to study and paint First Nation art in remote villages on islands and in thick forest. Why did she develop such original, rule breaking paintings of this land she described as ‘ the vastness, the wildness, the Western breath of go-to-the-devil-if-you-don’t-like-it, the eternal big spaciousness‘ (‘Hundreds and Thousands’, her journals – see end of the post for details). Any answers to these questions are inevitably incomplete and contested. Many books and articles have been written about Emily Carr, and she will always remain controversial, not least for her portrayal of First Nations art and people in her paintings, lectures and writings. You can see a list of just some of these here . http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/expositions-exhibitions/emily_carr/en/index.php?worksID=1037 

In this post I discuss her marginal social identities that mix uneasily with her powerful position as part of the colonisers, and also her relationship with the land that she expresses through her paintings.  This is a longer post than my others but I hope you will at least look at the paintings by Emily I’ve inserted in the rest of this post!

Although Emily was born in Victoria on the West coast of Canada, her family were economic immigrants and brought their British patriarchal culture and values with them. The town of Victoria was less than thirty years old when Emily was born. Mary Pratt calls colonised lands like this one ‘contact zones’ in her exploration of the ‘Euro-Imperial adventure’. In these zones very different cultures are brought together in interactions which lead to new, hybrid cultural practices. These movements into the ‘new’ lands (from the perspective of the colonisers) result in new layers of meaning and identity being constructed .  Emily’s paintings and stories are part of these post-colonial layers.

Her creative drive took her on these long trips to First Nation villages to sketch and paint their totems, in her first body of work. Such behaviour was not ‘normal’ for unmarried, middle class women within the colonial communities she was born into, nor was her interest in being in, and painting these remote villages and wild scenery. Gerta Moray describes Emily on these arduous trips as ‘transgressing gender boundaries by invading the masculine world (–) of the bushwhacker, the ethnographer, and the speculator’.
Emily says that she learnt how to paint the land through this study of First Nation art rather than through the traditional classical art education she experienced in England and America, ‘ Indian Art broadened my seeing, loosened the formal tightness I had learned in England’s schools. Its bigness and stark reality baffled my white man’s understanding. I was as Canadian – born as the Indian but behind me were the Old World heredity and ancestry‘ (Growing Pains). Unlike most of her community she didn’t turn her back on the culture of these peoples whose land they were usurping. She studied it, asked questions, showed respect and sympathy as she saw how they were being marginalised by her community’s grab for land and resources and attacks on their cultural practices by missionaries eager to change them. Moray quotes her as saying in a lecture ‘ It is indeed always an honour & a privilege , to be taken into an Indian’s confidence , for they are and have good reason for being, suspicious of the whites‘.

Her own struggles to have control over her life as a woman in a patriarchal society might have been one source for this sympathy, alongside her solidarity with their artists. Yet, as has been clearly argued, she did not use this solidarity and knowledge as a base to campaign against their marginalisation, to help bring their voices to be heard. Instead, she was happy to offer lectures about their art, to speak on their behalf. And she drew on the dominant colonising ‘salvage’ discourse that relegates these people who inconveniently already live in these places, to a ‘safe’ past, whose art needs saving and put into museums. As Marcia Crosby explains, labelling this art as ‘relics’ positions it as an unthreatening ‘ lost Canadian heritage’ and imposes this identity from a position of power.

Emily was also happy for her paintings of their totems to be displayed alongside a collection of First Nation carvings and artefacts in a major exhibition that brought her vital national recognition in 1927, an exhibition of West Coast Indian art at the Canadian National Gallery in Ottawa . While her paintings were named, the First Nation artworks were not, and it is through this exhibition that she began to gain legitimacy as a modern artist in the post-colonial Canada, and entrance into essential cultural networks, such as the ‘Group of Seven’ – male artists who were developing new styles of painting Canadian landscape in the East. This was a significant step for a ‘woman’ painter, but it was not one open to any living First Nation artists.
Although the First Nation art she journeyed to see and sketch was her primary way into painting these lands, she also felt she needed to bring in another perspective to be able to paint this country she was experiencing, drawing perhaps in a new way on her ‘Old World’ identity. In 1910 she went to France to study the ‘new art’ she had heard about when in England. She spent a year and a half there, studying with artists developing fauvist styles, which introduced violent colours and bold surface design. When she came back she went on a long sketching trip and applied the new techniques she had learned to her painting of First Nation totems.

When she first exhibited her paintings of totems and villages in Vancouver and Victoria in 1913 her work met with incomprehension. Both subject matter and method were rejected. Her new ways of painting did not follow expectations about art the community brought with them, and so caused discomfort – new forms of art always challenge taken for granted ways of seeing things. For example, in a review of her work in the Victoria Colonist in October of the same year, the journalist hoped that Carr’s ‘attack of neo or “post impressionism” would pass without producing on her colour sense the equivalent of a permanent fixing of the eye in a squinting position’.
Moray records the memory of this first exhibition in Victoria by the daughter of a friend of Carr’s, Flora Hamilton Burns. She remembered it as well attended but people ‘couldn’t understand it, particularly her own family.

The Indian art — was regarded as strange to the average person in Western Canada . People found it difficult to understand why she was interested in it.

For Emily as artist these trips produced a flourishing of creativity and a sense of belonging to this place that built on the perspectives of the First Nations. For the colonial communities it was all too alien, too ‘other’(see Stuart Hall’s work). Her art alienated her from her own family and local community.


As an artist she stepped over existing gender boundaries, but in her relationships and public position with First Nations peoples she mostly conformed with the dominant practices of dispossession and displacement by her acceptance of them as a ‘vanishing race’. Maybe her own struggles against marginalisation as a ‘woman’ painter and experimental artist did not leave her enough emotional space to join in with the resistance to these powerful practices? All through her early life as an art student and practising artist and art teacher she was constantly presented with the beliefs that male art was superior to that of a female. Here are two of her journal entries which record this dominant view:

1. (An artist visiting from Budapest) found my work more like a man’s than a woman’s. He thinks women find it harder to separate things from themselves, to forget themselves in their work, to concentrate.
2. (Mr Hatch) wrote he never thought women’s work (painting or writing) serious or strong but he excepts me and a few others.

Like many women who managed to enter male domains, she is accepted only as an ‘honorary’ man, not as an artist in her own right. Nowhere in her published journals is there a questioning of this inequality until one entry right near the end of her life. In this entry, reflecting on a positive review of an exhibition of her work, she identifies with ‘women painters’ and chides herself for not ‘upholding’ them. It seems that she can only challenge this gendered identity once her work has been legitimated by others.

Even since Emily’s time, this unequal label of ‘woman painter’ has taken a long time to fade away as no longer relevant. When did you ever see the label ‘male painter’? To be constantly labelled as inferior, or an exception to the rule, makes continuing with experimentation very difficult to sustain without strong networks of support. After these 1913 exhibitions Emily did not start any new painting for fifteen years. Fifteen years! These years without painting did not seem to be happy years for her – trying to make a living through the recession by breeding dogs and running a boarding house for ‘ladies’. It was only when she was invited into the art circles in the East of Canada, through the 1927 exhibition that she started to develop her painting again and build the work focussing on the landscapes and forests of British Columbia. Through these networks she regained the activity and identity through which she flourished as a person.

Joyful gestalts

the tree - Emily Carr. www.bertc.com

the tree – Emily Carr.

What all her paintings do, but especially her later ones, is convey her living relationship with the specific place she inhabited and painted. In her later life, instead of the long sketching trips, she established camps closer to Victoria, staying in a kind of wooden caravan for extended periods in one place so she could paint the woods and beaches. Even these more sedate trips breached the gender norms of the time. Middle-aged women did not go out to wild areas and stay there with only an assortment of domesticated animals for company.
By this time she was writing a journal and in it she describes how she worked with the places that she was trying to paint. Here is just one example,

The woods are brim full of thoughts. You just sit and roll your eyes and everywhere is a subject thought, something saying something. Trick is to adjust one’s ear trumpet. Don’t try to word it. Don’t force it to come to you – your way – but try and adapt yourself its way. Let it lead you.

She describes her work as a dialogue between her and the trees, wind, mountains that she was translating onto a flat canvas. Edward Casey argues that our being is always in place – that we are ‘placelings’ or ‘place-bound’, that we ‘are not only in places but of them’. He describes places as ‘gathering’ experiences and histories, even languages and thoughts’ To highlight the significance of natural environments Casey represents them as having agency.

Casey argues that we cannot separate ‘nature’ from ‘culture’ because cultural practices are always rooted in specific places, and are embodied. For Casey, then, culture and place work reciprocally. Places are known and shaped through our interaction with them, and they shape us. Emily learnt about her place first through growing up in the land, and then through the ‘place-bound’ First Nation practices, through experiencing it herself on her trips and through her own long periods of ‘dwelling’ in these places.  Through her paintings she aimed to communicate the joyful ‘gestalts’ she experienced in these places (see Arne Naess), and also her sense of belonging there.

But she also left these lands and brought back new ways of seeing from elsewhere. Casey’s description of cultural identity is what Stuart Hall calls a ‘blood and soil’ discourse, in which it is assumed that the norm is to inhabit one place for a long time and to build a dialogue with it. As Stuart Hall and others show, we humans (like many other species) habitually move around our planet, or make contact with those coming into where we are established. Emily Carr is part of more recent globalising flows of people and she brings in a mix of practices, and adds to the construction of a new, ‘Canadian’ layer of meaning to this place, through interaction with it, and with previous meanings.  These cultural practices are always embedded within social relations of power (see Massey and Jess). Emily experiences place and produces her paintings in complex ‘in-between’ relations within this contact zone.
This relationship between collective, cultural practices and individual action is what fascinates me. If you read Emily’s writings you can see how she is partly shaped by dominant ways of talking and being, and yet she still embarked on long trips few other woman from her community would think to make, and, when older, found a way to go and stay in the ‘wild’ places, where she felt at home, despite the social norms of her time. She also actively sought out new ways of painting and drew on them in her own way.

Emily Carr - Old tree at dusk. www.arthistory.com

Emily Carr – Old tree at dusk.

Although her paintings show us the joyful experiences of her being in wild places, there are also plenty of expressions of her unhappiness in the journals; of feeling lonely and misunderstood. She could only do what she did then by avoiding the trap of marriage and children, but the freedom she managed to get also meant she lost out on intimacy. For Emily I think it is her drive to paint that provides this necessary energy to go against some social norms. A sense of self as an artist is the most fundamental for her, to enable her to make these actions, especially when she finds the support of other artists, even though they were mostly male.

Is this how individuals come to question and make changes to our collective practices and established social identities – by responding to deep inner needs to create or heal or challenge injustice?

Carr, Emily, Hundreds and thousands, (Toronto, Irwin Publishing, 1966).
Carr, Emily, Growing pains: an autobiography, (Toronto, Irwin Publishing, 1971).
Edward Casey, ‘How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time:’ in Steven Feld and Keith Basso, eds., in Senses of Place (Sante Fe, new Mexico, the School of American Research Press, 1996).
Crosby, Marcia, ‘Construction of the imaginary Indian,” in Stan Douglas, ed., Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art, (Vancouver:, Talon,1991).
Massey, Doreen and Jess, Pat, ‘Places and cultures in an uneven world’ ’in Massey and Jess, eds., A place in the world? Places, cultures and globalisation (Oxford, Oxford University Press/ Open University, 1995).
Moray,Gerta, Unsettling encounters: First Nations imagery in the art of Emily Carr, (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2006).
Naess Arne, Ecology, community and lifestyle: outline of an ecosophy, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Nemiroff, Diana, ‘Modernism, nationalism, and beyond: A critical history of exhibitions of First Nations art’ in Thinking about Exhibitions, eds. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, Thinking about exhibitions, (London:, Routledge, 1996).
Pratt Mary, 1992 cited by Hall, Stuart , ‘New cultures for old’ ’in Doreen Massey and Pat Jess, eds., A Place in the world? Places, cultures and globalisation (Oxford, Oxford University Press/ Open University, 1995


2 thoughts on “Emily Carr, artist and coloniser: mutliple identities

  1. love your choice of paintings here and how you get over the complexity of this wonderful painter. There is an exhibition of her work on now at the Dulwich Art Gallery in London bit.ly/ZPWhK6


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