‘Words are things’: Mary Kelly’s Multi-Story house


IMG_20150226_133142 mary kelly

Mary Kelly: Multi-Story House

Last month I went to the refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.  I enjoyed the space and light that has been opened up in the development of this old red brick building, and the way it now blurs the boundaries between the park and gardens outside and the wide, white spaces inside.  I was especially struck by the way they have put together specific portraits from their permanent collection – where studies from the eighteenth century are hung next to contemporary paintings, sketches by unknown artists alongside the powerful works of Freud and Bacon.  Here is the link to this exhibition on their website: Whitworth Gallery: Portraits

The majority of the works are drawings and paintings that hang on walls, but they have also included less conventional ‘portraits’ such as the mix of feminist voices in the stories that are central to Mary Kelly’s ‘Multi-Story House’ (2007).  This small, warmly lit ‘glass house’ (the size of a garden shed) is what I want to focus on here.

In contrast with the images of all types of people on the surrounding walls, this bright object creates its portraits through words.  Instead of responding to a representation of a specific body, reading these ‘stories’ summons up a hubbub of different voices.  The words are all carved into acrylic panels in the same cursive style, all are in (or translated into) English, and all address the theme of feminism.  But the words in each extract conjure up a myriad of mouths, because each speaker draws on a differing choice of words and set of contexts.


The narratives are taken from conversations with women of different generations about being a feminist, and to read them you have to move around all the sides of the house, look up at the sloping roof, go inside to read those that present their back to you from the outside.  So it is a physical experience as well as a mental and emotional one, and one I felt I could ‘control’ by choosing which stories to read, by walking away to think about them, and returning later.  However, the artist directs your experience of  the relations between past and present by presenting all the younger women’s narratives on the outside, and the older generation of women (the same generation as the artist herself) on the inside.

Kelly said of this arrangement of time ‘you can’t be in both places‘ in a conversation with Paula McCloskey at the Whitworth in 2011.  She also said that through this ‘dialogue’ between generations of women she is addressing the question of ‘what (-) you feel that you’re obliged to carry on in terms of the legacy.

Questions are fundamental to her work as an artist, she stated in this interview: ‘I recognised that if an artist has a brief, it’s to ask the question – so that’s where I began in my work. It’s not about the answers,’

I like that approach – it makes sense to me – and perhaps helps me work through why I find some art works so stimulating, so thought-provoking.  They fill my mind with questions, they make me look again, physically or mentally.

Words are things

This is the title to a catalogue of an exhibition of her work in Warsaw in 2008.  I don’t know if Kelly chose this title or not, but it caught my eye as it is so central to her work, especially in Multi-Story House, where we are in the collective presence of other feminists through their words.  Words that you can see through, into the interior of the house, carved material symbols that take us on a journey into ourselves and into other selves.

In her conversation with McCloskey, Mary Kelly talked about the re-staging of a street theatre event, originally enacted in 1971, and she referred to the pleasure she remembered of being in the company of women acting together as feminists, a pleasure that re-occurred between the women involved in the re-staging in this century – the pleasure of a ‘collective presence‘.  This kind of pleasure describes well how I felt as I read the stories, and walked round and peered into her Multi-Story House.  I identified with the dialogue on the panels, and a felt a sense of belonging with these speakers from around the world, all actively embracing and re-affirming an identity that means so much to me too.

56_MaryKelly_Mea Culpa_Detail_Johannesburg_2

Mary Kelly: Mea Culpa 1997 from marykellyartist.com


Paula McCloskey, in conversation with Mary Kelly, Studies in the Maternal, 4(1), 2012, http://www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk


Missing my creative self

P: but then I did hit a point where I had to carry on, carry on with something

K: it was like a real need?

P: yes, definitely, absolutely and having dreams about drawings.  It became a really strong thing.  It’s like a different part of yourself sort of shouting out for some attention.

from Wikiart.com

Paul Klee, ‘Evening shows’, Wikiart.com

The  extract above comes from an interview I did with an artist when researching into creativity and the words we use to talk about it.  Here P is referring to when she became a mother of twins and had no time for her art for a few years (see the page on my book ‘Sourcing the Self’ for more about this research).

I have been thinking about P’s words as I have currently been having to give most of main daily energy to work that gives me a basic income.  At certain times of the year these commitments don’t leave me enough space in the day to continue with my own creative work – in my case, writing. In these periods  I don’t dream about writing, as P did about drawing.  In fact, I’m more likely to dream about my work when I am engaged in daily writing, as I find myself living in the world I am creating through words.

Joyce Kozloff 'voyages 21 Pohnpei' 2004 at wikiart.com

Joyce Kozloff ‘voyages 21 Pohnpei’ 2004 at wikiart.com

I don’t experience such a clear inner voice as P either.  For me it’s more of an indistinct ‘malaise’,  more as if something – not quite tangible – is missing.  Life feels incomplete. During periods where I am working creatively every day I feel much more in balance, and I’m more likely to have an underlying feeling of contentment or something like ‘rightness’, even though I will often be struggling with the writing, and frequently frustrated with my lack of ability to find the right words or to keep going at a steady pace (instead of staring out of the window).

When I don’t have enough time in a week to work creatively then I often question the ‘meaningfulness’ of my life and have many doubts about the value of it, even though I don’t have any illusions that any creative writing of mine will be seen to be of any value to anyone else.  But at least I’m giving it a go, and, more importantly, I get absorbed in it and my experience of time changes dramatically.

Do you have similar experiences, I wonder?

J.Audubon 'Birds of America'

J.Audubon ‘Birds of America’

In praise of trees

Eaves wood, Lancs.

Eaves Wood, Lancashire

‘The Chinese count wood as the fifth element, and Jung considered trees as an archetype. Nothing can compete with these larger-than–life organisms for signalling the changes in the natural world. (…) Trees have a capacity to rise to the heavens and to connect us to the sky, to endure, to renew, to bear fruit, and to burn and warm us through the winter.’
Roger Deakin, ‘Wildwood’.

I can’t imagine living without trees.  As a child I used to climb them, and feel safe among the green leaves, hidden from view and supported by their strong limbs.  As an adult I walk in local woods and make trips to visit venerable and ancient trees.

Martindale yew, Cumbria

Martindale yew, Cumbria

This is one huge branch of the ancient yew tree at Martindale, in the Lake District, reaching out to support itself.    The stone chapel you can see in the photo was built in the twelfth century to accompany it and together they have co-existed in this small Cumbrian valley down the centuries.

This yew could be up to 2000 years old, like at least one of the three remaining standing of Wordsworth’s ‘Fraternal Four’ in Borrowdale, which I also had the privilege to visit.  I was lucky enough to be alone with them for a few hours one Christmas day, probably because it was pouring with rain.  The muscled, reddish-brown trunks glistened with raindrops as the wind blew curtains of rain through the valley.  Hard it was to take in the length of time they had spent in this place, shaped it.  Beneath the wind and rain, in the shelter of these huge yews, there was a hush, a serenity, that these old beings emanated.  I felt that Wordsworth might step out of the mist and into this grove, notebook in hand, as he did a mere one and a half centuries earlier.

Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain) said of the fir trees of the Cairngorms:

‘the fragrance is the sap, is the very life itself. When the aromatic savour of the pine goes searching into the deepest recesses of my lungs, I know it is life that is entering.’

On that wild winter day in Borrowdale I felt that I was touching, and breathing in, not life, but the essence of time itself.

autumn woods

autumn woods

Walking through woods is a sensual experience, whatever the season.

Kicking up piles of crisp, golden leaves, hopping over knotted roots, listening to the woodpecker’s energetic drilling, breathing in the heady scent of bluebells or wild garlic, Middlewood walk May 2015 002tiptoeing past the tree hollow with its nest of shy owlets, sitting on a fallen log listening to the intense summer hum of insects, 2007_0922septemberB070034glimpsing a fox with a glorious brush tail pause as it sees you and the dogs then silently slip away,  resting in the cool green shade on a hot day, rejoicing in the shapely, frosted outlines of bare trees shimmering in the low winter sun.

Here is Nan Shepherd again, on the magic of birch woods:

‘Exquisite when the opening leaves just fleck them with points of green flame, or the thinning leaves turn them to a golden lace, (birch trees) are loveliest of all when naked. In a low sun, the spun silk floss of their twigs seems to be created out of light. Without transfiguration, they are seen to be purple – when the sap is rising, a purple so glowing that I have caught sight of a birchwood on a hillside and for one incredulous moment thought the heather was in bloom.’  (The Living Mountain).

Woods in the daytime and at dusk, woods in winter, spring, summer and autumn – Midsummer Night’s Dream, Under the Greenwood Tree, Wind in the Willows, Teddybears’ picnic….. but what about woods when darkness falls, when Hansel and Gretel are lost, the owls call and mysterious shapes loom in the shadows?

fir wood in Dumfries and Galloway

fir wood in Dumfries and Galloway

When the light goes, and the trees become an undifferentitiated dark mass then all the sounds in a wood become more noticeable, and the imagination gears up.  Where our eyes could see the crows on the low branches, now we only hear the rustle of bush and leaf.  Where we could see the path stretching out empty, now who knows what may be ahead or behind us?  Our imagination – or at least, my imagination – has been fed by all those old fairy tales I read as a child.  Tales that go way back into the past when stories were told, not written, and we all lived surrounded by large dark forests, where you really could get lost, meet strangers, face danger.

2014-04-22 15 05 23As Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes when discussing the tale of the handless maiden, these forests were often the very places where the protagonists had to face their fears and discover their individual psyche or self (Women who run with the wolves):

This large wild forest that the maiden finds is the archetypal sacred initiatory ground.  It is like Leuce, the wild forest the ancient Greeks said grew in the underworld, filled with the sacred and ancestral trees and full of beasts, both wild and human.

It is also in the middle of forests that you need to go to seek out the Baba Yaga, the wild woman who knows about both life and death, learn the powers of intuition, as part of your journey towards maturation.

Spending time in the much smaller woods we have around us today, working to protect them, getting a little lost in the process of getting to know them in all their seasons, is one way to get to know yourself, as well as the trees that create the enchantment of these special places.  Clarissa Pinkola Estes urges us to go out into the woods;

If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.’  (Clarissa Pinkola Estes)

crab apples

crab apples

Frack off! So demonstrating is not dead?

photographed by Mary Hamilton

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

On Tuesday 23 June I found myself back on the streets, holding a placard and shouting anti-fracking slogans to the passing cars.  All this in Preston, UK, as Lancashire County Council deliberated over proposals from Cuadrilla to start fracking in two sites in the county.  Voicing my opinion in public, in the company of like-minded others, has been, for me, a normal activity, having gone to university in 1968, one of the key years of rebellion and sit-ins that flowed across the channel from Paris.  Collective demonstrations and marches were part of what it meant to be a university student for many of us – protesting against the apartheid system, nuclear weapons, wars.

These recent anti-fracking demonstrations have contributed to positive results so far, thankfully.   In Preston the County Council finally rejected both proposals for fracking licenses.  (This will not be the end of the fight though as the current government is threatening to overirde these crucial, local decisions).  I’m sure all the petitions and expert submissions to the consultation were the main cause of this happy outcome in Lancashire, but a street presence was important too, with

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

Mr Frackhead, a huge puppet bellowing out his greed for the fossil fuels under the ground, hot polar bears and Lancashire ladies in rollers tucked under headscarves, brandishing their feather dusters.

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

The demonstration was noisy but humorous and considerate to other users of the street and I felt instantly at home when I joined in.  There were not, though, the few thousands of people I had hoped to be there for a national demonstration.  Has demonstrating become a minority activity in England these days?  Where were all the students?

I wonder if the long-term lack of success of big street demonstrations has reduced the numbers joining in these collective actions here in the England?

My own view on the value of demonstrating had certainly become less positive by the end of the last century.  So much so that I was very reluctant to join in the series of anti-Iraq invasion marches when Blair was prime minister.   ‘What was the point?’ I asked myself.  However, when the farce about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction grew more and more ridiculous I, like millions of others around the world, got up at the crack of the UK dawn on February 15th 2003,and sat on a coach as it headed down the M6 to the capital.  I remember the rising excitement as we spotted coach after coach on the motorway, all heading the same way, with banners and placards at the windows.  There was certainly no disappointment about numbers that day as we joined the huge snaking tail of the march, and danced behind the bands and chatted with fellow marchers, my cynical coat tossed into the gutter.

Anti-Iraq War march, 15/2/03 by Simon Rutherford - http://www.flickr.com/photos/simonru/1667562002/

Anti-Iraq War march, 15/2/03
by Simon Rutherford – http://www.flickr.com/photos/simonru/1667562002/

I felt privileged to be part of the huge diversity of the protestors, reflecting the larger population – people of all ages and colours ; people proclaiming their differing faiths, families with young children, local communities and organsiations.  Here is a short extract from my journal that I wrote the next day:

Near Picadilly a man and a woman stood at the side of the road with handwritten placards- one of which said, “I am Iraqi and I give thanks on behalf of my people.”  We saluted them – a moving moment – the two of them were brave and proud and humble all at the same time.

There was a feeling of coming together, across different identities, lives and beliefs – a very tenuous and fragile union of different peoples – but present none the less.

I was so glad I had shrugged off my layer of cynicism and became a part of that very special day.  It showed me, once again, that my passions and values were also the passions and values of a large and diverse section of the country I am a citizen of.  Yet Blair, like Thatcher before him (I’m thinking of the miners’ strikes), refused to be swayed from his rigid perspective by these millions of people marching in his own city, and across the world.  As Patrick Barkham wrote in the Guardian on the tenth anniversary of this march, this failure led to mass disillusion about British democracy (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/15/iraq-war-mass-protest) .  It could, I think, be argued that the continuing decline in voting numbers for general elections, and the increasing distrust of politicians has been fuelled by Blair’s refusal to take account of this huge anti-war protest.  Its immediate failure certainly cemented my own disillusionment about the power of the mass demonstration.  We still have nuclear weapons in the UK and we are still trying to safeguard the planet.

Like many other women I had also been part of two of the larger rallies at Greenham Common, demonstrating against the presence of American Cruise missiles in this country.  On those days I experienced the power of solidarity with other women, and the courage born from it.

Now that was a successful collective action, eventually, thanks to the dedicated team of women who gave up their daily lives, and sometimes their freedom, for the time it took to free England from these weapons of mass destruction.  This success only came out of dedication, perseverance and committment though.  It required much more from those who achieved it than the odd day of getting up early and joining together with a mass of others sharing the same values.  More recent collective actions such as Occupy have learnt this need for committment to a more enduring identity of protest.

Is there a future for the shorter, mass gathering on the streets (or in threatened green spaces) with other citizens in this country?  Our TV and computer screens show that this is a form of action very much alive in other countries where goverment decisions are seen to have a more immediate impact on their lives.

Barkham argues that the huge anti-Iraq war led to disillusion, but that it also shaped the future lives of many of those who took part in the protest and led to new forms of protest.  He interviewed some of the younger people who joined that march, including a volunteer steward, Shamiul Joarder.  He quotes Joarder as saying, “You can’t go to one protest and think that things are going to change for ever. You can’t email your MP once. We have to engage in a long-term process,”.  Greenham Common showed this too. To create change takes more than a day on the streets with a placard.

Street protests may not bring about immediate change but I think they still have a place within the array of political and

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

social activities.  My recent short stint on the streets of Preston has helped me to trample on my heavy coat of cynicism.  These gatherings are important to build solidarity with likeminded others, to renew our energies and proclaim those values that are so important to us.  I shall be back!

Photographs of the Preston demonstration were taken by Mary Hamilton.

Post election reflections: shedding the ego

Dama by Antonio Saura 1958

Dama by Antonio Saura 1958

Since the election results in the UK those of us in England who are passionate about caring for all the species on our planet, have been full of despair. Those of us in England who are trying to build an egalitarian society, where all can flourish, have been full of despair. During the election the atmosphere throughout this long island has been suffused with fear and anxiety and negative campaigning.  That’s why I have started this post with one of Antonio Saura’s powerful works. They show, in a way I can’t with words, my current feelings of alienation – through his strong thick brush strokes, his sober palette of colours, his sharp edges.  The white strokes caught up, overwhelmed, in this jangle signify, for me, the glimmer of hope shared by many of us as we went to vote.

Time, I thought, to turn back to Roy Bhaskar. Could he help free me from these negative feelings? Help me struggle out of the mires of defeat and find ways to carry forward our vision without acrimony?

He reminds me that to be is to be related.

He reminds me that I cannot myself be free or fulfilled until all beings are also free and fulfilled.

He reminds me of the role of the ‘ego’ that is so self-evident in the voting patterns at the outcome of this election.  Here is his description of this, from ‘Reflections on Meta-Reality’, page 137:

It is that sense we have of ourselves as separate and cut off from the rest of creation, that sense of my separate identity against yours. That sense that in some way I can exist independently of you and that you are not a part of me and that in some way my well being does not depend on your well being. That is the ego. Western philosophy and our contemporary society is structured around the idea of the individual self which possesses. And this individual possessive self stands in possessive, instrumental relation to an object world which is outside of himself. (……….) That is the ego, that is the sense of separateness that we have, and that is an illusion and, to be free, we have to get rid of it.

He reminds me that we all have to be continually working to be aware of our own negative emotions that come from our egos, and continually clearing them in order to become ‘like a translucent vessel with no dust to disturb its translucent irradiating qualities.’  In that way we each can act to transform rather than reproduce the current social structures we are working in.

He reminds me that

the only way you can act, ever act, is through yourself. You can only act through or in virtue of your embodied personality. (..) I can only act through myself and then I cannot free you. I can unlock the door but you have to walk out. Emancipation or freedom is not something that can be imposed from without. Every embodied personality has to free themselves.(p. 147)

I can only act myself but I can always try to act to maximise the self-realisation of all beings everywhere.

He argues that capitalism is fed by the negative emotions of the ego – desires, greed, pride but also reminds us that it is also sustained by the virtues of creativity and love of those enmeshed within its asymmetrical networks.

Creative human beings could survive without oppressive or dysfunctional systems of economic or political or for that matter religious management and control. But those systems could not survive without the creativity of human agents. (pp. 316-7, meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom)

He reminds me that I need to continually be aware of my own illusory, but powerful ego; that I need to continually clear it so that my acts can be transformative.  ‘Anything you do intentionally will be mediated by your emotions’.

I will finish this post with the essential quality of love, which for Bhaskar is the powerful, healing force at the ground-state of us all:

I prefer to think in terms of five radiating circles of love. When you are in one circle this will almost inevitably take you into other circles. These circles are the circle of love for yourself; for another human being; for the totality of other human beings; for the totality of other beings in creation; and for the source or sustaining power in creation itself (p.181, meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom).

Drum sound rises in the air,               

its throb, my heart.September 2011 Essex and Suffolk 003

A voice inside the beat

says ‘I know you’re tired,

but come. ‘This is the way’.

Jellaludin Rumi, quoted by Bhaskar in meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom)

Watching the terns

clouds and sea

I stood, a small static spot in the wide sweep of
the white sand and seething sea, amazed by
the show as terns flew above the shore and hurtled
into the waves below.

J.Audubon 'Birds of America'

J.Audubon ‘Birds of America’

These agile artists etched erratic silver
streaks into the deep blue canvas of the
sky; haphazard strokes connecting sunlight to salt grey
water, then dissolving.

Sometimes my slow eyes could only catch the quick
flick of sea foam as these sea swallows plunged beneath
the waves, creating sporadic explosions
of stippled spray.

The bravura patterns of moving light, made from these
acrobats’ sheer steep falls from the air, are seasonal star
performances within the eternal drama of sea and sky unfolding
on Embleton sands.

But these winged artists also use a different set of rules to
draw on land, I found, while loitering along the shore and
snooping into rock pools. At the water’s edge I saw
a pair of terns begin their act.

First they faced each other, then
each turned to sketch a perfect
circle on the wave polished sand.

Facing each other once more
they dipped their heads and brought
the tips of their beaks together,
before each carefully stepped out
and round their circle again,

incising their spiked claw prints,
firming, confirming, returning.
Finally they stood close together
looking out to sea, two small grey
backs resolutely excluding me.

from the International Bird Collection

from the International Bird Collection

The nonchalant ease of their plummeting sky falls and careful
courtship circles kept me returning to these sands, trying to
interpret these abstract forms produced from
their briny elements.

sea and skyI watched these terns on Embleton Sands, Northumberland, but I was so busy ‘snooping’ that I didn’t take photos while there.  For this post I have used photos of another sea on the opposite side of England, on Morecambe Bay.  There are no terns here, sadly, but there are shorelines, sands, clouds and big skies.  The photo above was taken, not by me, but by a friend (thanks Mary) on a a late afternoon walk we shared, walking around just one small part of it.

Successful creative women – eccentric or role models?

How do you feel if someone describes you as eccentric? Do you feel pride or anger, or something else? Eccentric, ex-centric, out from the centre.  This is a word that’s pleasing to speak, sibilant –

'Abstract Swirl' Sonia Delauney. http://www.wikiart.org/en/sonia-delaunay/abstract-swirl

‘Abstract Swirl’ Sonia Delauney. http://www.wikiart.org/en/sonia-delaunay/abstract-swirl

but is this just an innocent term to denote those not in the mainstream? Does that depend on who’s using it?

Over the years I’ve noticed this word being used in descriptions of some creative women – not usually about their work, but about them as persons, as women. In 2010, for example, the British writer Beryl Bainbridge died at the age of 75. She left for us a whole set of powerful novels, two of which won the Whitbread Awards, and five of which were shortlisted for the Booker prize. Many were made into films. There were obituaries of her in most UK newspapers and other media and I noticed the frequent appearance of this word in them. Here are a few examples:
1. I did not know her well, wish I had known her better. She was, as they say, a one-off, eccentric, courageous, intelligent, well read – Dickens was her god. (Susan Hill, The Spectator’s art blog, 2010)
2. For many year’s Bainbridge’s work was edited at Duckworth by Anna Haycraft, better known as the writer Alice Thomas Ellis, whose regular Spectator column often featured her deeply eccentric, chain-smoking, hard-drinking mate, Beryl. ( Paul Levy,2010, the Independent)
3. Beryl Bainbridge, rarely perceived as cuddly even by those who relished her work and eccentric personality, was today celebrated as “a superb granny”, before being buried in suitably grand literary surroundings at Highgate Cemetery, where her neighbours include George Eliot, Karl Marx, the parents of Charles Dickens, and the poet Christina Rossetti. (Maev Kennedy, The Guardian.co.uk, books 2010)
What we can see in these examples is that the word ‘eccentric’ is usually accompanied by other adjectives that give it either a positive or negative slant.  In the first extract above Hill combines this descriptor with others that are all unambiguously positive (courageous, intelligent, well read). In the third the adjective is used alone by Kennedy (eccentric personality) but is put alongside a potentially negative description of the writer as not ‘cuddly’. In the second it is directly associated with negative, excessive behaviour (chain-smoking, hard-drinking).
Janet Watts tells us that this labelling of her as eccentric had been going on a long time, and that it was a description that she, herself rejected:
Beryl came to dislike the image she had acquired of eccentricity and wildness around alcohol and men. “Nobody can write books, bring up children and earn money if they are eccentric,” she said firmly. (Janet Watts, 2010, The Guardian)
Here Bainbridge describes herself as the same as the rest of us.

I will now give two more examples of this labeling from writing about Stevie Smith (poet) and Emily Carr (painter and writer). I wonder if they would also have rejected this label that was also applied to them?
Stevie Smith wrote poems and published them alongside her own drawings, which she referred to as ‘doodles’. Kristin Bluemel quotes from Seamus Heaney’s review of Smith’s 1976 ‘Collected Poems’ as saying “I suppose, in the end, the adjective has to be called ‘eccentric“. Here it is one feature of Smith’s work that is being negatively labelled, which is interesting, but Bluemel also says that Smith’s behaviour at poetry readings was labelled as eccentric too. Bluemel argues that Smith’s drawings and poems challenged the conventional traditions and assumptions of her time, which were mainly driven by white, male norms.  Think T.S Eliott, for example.
As I have discussed in a previous blog the Canadian artist Emily Carr also challenged dominant assumptions through her paintings, and she too has been given the label ‘eccentric’. I first met this in the foreword to a later edition of Klee Wyck, Carr’s initial collection of prose sketches, first published in 1941. The author of this foreword, written in 1951, is Ira Dilworth, who edited all her writing during her lifetime, and was her literary executor. Six years after her death he begins this introduction to her and her work with the following description:
My earliest vivid memories of Emily Carr go back (–) to a time when she was living in Victoria, British Columbia, still largely unnoticed as an artist (-). In those days she was a familiar figure passing down Simcoe Street in front of our house (–), she passed by each morning on her way to the grocer’s or butcher’s. She trundled in front of her an old-fashioned baby carriage in which sat her favourite pet, Woo, a small Javanese monkey dressed in a bright costume of black, red and brown which Emily had made for her. Bounding around her as she went would be six or eight of the great shaggy sheep dogs which she raised for sale. Half an hour later you could see her returning, the baby carriage piled high with parcels, Woo skipping along at the end of a leash, (–). The great sheep dogs still bounced around the quaint figure whom they recognised as their devoted mistress. I thought of her then, as did the children behind the hedge and as did most of her fellow-citizens who thought of her at all, as an eccentric, middle-aged woman who kept an apartment house on Simcoe Street near Beacon Hill Park, who surrounded herself with numbers of pets – birds, chipmunks, white rats and the favourite Woo – and raised English sheep dogs in kennels in her large garden.
Emily Carr was a great painter, certainly one of the greatest women painters of any time. It has been said that for originality, versatility, driving creative power and strong individual achievement she has few equals among modern artists.
Notice here that Dilworth starts with a description of her as odd, peculiar, excessive and only after this does he turn to her work and its value. In this description, as in the negative description of Bainbridge above is the highlighting of excess. In Dilworth’s portrait Carr is accompanied by too many animals, of too many species. Bainbridge is described as consuming too many cigarettes and alcohol. Out of long, complicated and sometimes difficult lives for all these creative women  these ‘different’ behaviours are selected as notable, and as excessive, rather than the aspects of it that we all share, as Bainbridge pointed out.
The association of Carr with the word eccentric is not confined to past times. In 2001 to 2002 an exhibition of her work in her hometown of Victoria at The Royal British Columbian museum was titled ‘Emily Carr: Eccentric Artist, Author, Genius.’ Nancy Pagh reports that the museum used a banner on its building to advertise the exhibition with ‘Emily Carr: Eccentric’ emblazoned on it, overshadowing the smaller text ‘Artist, Author, Genius’. This marketing parallels Dilworth’s representation of Carr as firstly odd, and only secondly, as ‘great painter’.
The website of the Vancouver Art gallery has an introductory biographical sketch of Carr which starts with the following sentence: ‘Emily Carr’s life story has all the qualities of an excellent biography — tragedy, inspiration, triumph, resolve, eccentricity’ (http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/EmilyCarr/en/about/index.php). This gallery now owns almost two hundred of Carr’s art works, so it is an important site for the legacy of her work and access to digital archives of her paintings. In this first paragraph it is made clear that there are many different versions of Carr, by herself and those writing about her. There is no attempt to offer a definitive one, but the label of eccentricity is repeated twice more, ‘the eccentric, animal-loving recluse’ and ‘her eccentricities’.
I turned to Miranda Gill’s work on the concept of eccentricity to try and get to grips with what is going on in this labelling. She explored its genealogy – how it was used in the past – particularly in relation to its shifting meanings in nineteenth century Paris. Through her analysis of French popular culture and medical texts of that time Gill says that the term eccentricity is used by those who think of themselves as normal in order to label those they see as departing from current conventions. Like in my examples above, Gill has found that it was used ambivalently, to carry both positive and negative associations of what is seen as unconventionality. She shows how it was used negatively to mark behaviour as bizarre, transgressive, mad, or associated positively with innovation and creativity. Interestingly, she argues that females labelled as eccentric were more likely to be more negatively evaluated, especially in the Victorian period with its strict social codes for women. My examples show that this negative labelling continues.

As we can see from the extract from his foreword above, Dilworth goes on to praise Carr’s work and label her as a ‘great painter’.

Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer by DV Friedrich from WikiArt

Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer
by DV Friedrich from WikiArt

This is a perspective on artists that Gill includes in her genealogy of eccentricity, coming from the Romantic view of the artist as wild, solitary, exceptional. Like the term eccentric it marks off the person as different, apart from the rest of society, but with praise rather than fear or ridicule. Gill calls this a counter representation of eccentricity. She attributes it to liberal theory in Victorian England, citing J.S. Mill as an important source, in his championing of the freedom of the individual to act. She quotes Mills positive views on eccentricity, linking it to the concept of genius:
Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage which it contained.

A well known example of this perspective comes from Virginia Woolf in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ where she is challenging the patriarchal social worlds of the early twentieth century. Woolf also uses the category of genius as part of her advocacy for female artists:
Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes. Now and again an Emily Bronte or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence.’
Here she represents creative people as possessing a special ability that is unconnected with their social contexts. This view of the artist as exceptional is underpinned by the modernist view of the individual self as fixed, solid, immutable to the social worlds around her. Hill describes Bainbridge as a ‘one-off ’, Watts, in the Guardian obituary quotes the New York Times description of her writing as ‘the dark dynamic of her siren voice’. Dilworth, near the end of his foreward calls Carr ‘a great genius‘.  This Romantic perspective persists.  Through it these women are described as having strong, creative voices,  but is their power ‘roped off’, held in by accompanying descriptions of them as bizarre, abnormal women?

'rythme' by Sonia Delauney at http://www.wikiart.org/en/sonia-delaunay/rythme

‘rythme’ by Sonia Delauney at http://www.wikiart.org/en/sonia-delaunay/rythme

This view of the individual has now been displaced in the academy by the postmodern view of self as fluid, discursive, relational. The artist as a unique, lone individual is decentered through studies that trace the intricate relations of art social practices. Howard Becker’s ‘Art Worlds’ in 1982, for example, details the collective action that makes up art practices, and describes ‘the complexity of the cooperative networks through which art happens’. Art and creativity are now understood to be deeply social processes, through which art objects – music, paintings, books, poems, dance – are produced, and established conventions reproduced and transformed.

However, these descriptions show that the ambivalent category of eccentricity lives on, and that the idea of the artist as exceptional and distanced from us ‘normal folks’ is still in use.

Maybe this counter meaning is why some people are proud to label themselves as eccentric? . In 1995 David Weeks and Jamie James published a study of over one thousand people who chose to participate in the study because they were happy to call themselves eccentric. Their study also to brought together the concepts of eccentricity with creativity, as the authors declare that ‘creativity is at the heart of eccentricity’, but Weeks and James do not take a critical perspective on how this term can be used to try and reinforce specific social norms.
Gill points out that the meanings of the term eccentric are always context-dependent, as they shift alongside the social norms they are part of. This semantic shift is clearly illustrated by the highlighting and negative labelling of different behaviours and work in these three examples. Smith’s drawings are dismissed by Phillip Larkin as ‘frivolous‘, according to Bluemel, as well as eccentric by Heaney.  Carr’s love of animals is shown as excessive, as is Bainbridge’s smoking and drinking by Levy. In his description of Bainbridge we can clearly see the gender work. Would a male writer of the same generation and cultural background as Bainbridge be marked as abnormal for ‘ chain-smoking, hard-drinking‘? I think not.

It is one thing to describe yourself as eccentric, as the particpants in Weeks and James’ study have, but quite another thing to be given this label by others. Bainbridge tried to reject it, but up it popped, in both its associations, in writings about her after her death.  It seems to me that the negative meaning of this term is still being used to mark strong, creative women as different and outside current norms of femininity. They are presented as a category of difficulty.

Composition Dada by Sophie Taeuber from WikiArt

Composition Dada by Sophie Taeuber from WikiArt

I wonder if you have come across this use of the term eccentric and can add more examples here– or perhaps counter examples that disrupt this kind of labelling? I feel we still need to work hard to widen the social pool of role models available to the next generations – to celebrate different kinds of women (and men too!), different kinds of creativity and ways of living – not be content with them being labelled as deviant.


Becker, Howard, (1982) Art Worlds. University of California Press
Bluemel, Kirstin (1998) The dangers of eccentricity: Stevie Smith’s doodles and poetry. Mosaic, 31.3

Carr, Emily. (1941) Klee Wyck Toronto, Irwin Publishing

Gill, Miranda (2009) Eccentricity and the cultural imagination in nineteenth century Paris. Oxford University Press.
Hill, Susan (2010) The Spectator’s Art Blog; http://www.spectator.co.uk/arts-and-culture/touching-from-a-distance/6124993/beryl-bainbridge.thtml 6/7/2010 (accessed 15/7/10)
Kennedy, Maev (2010) ) http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/12/beryl-bainbridge-buried-highgate-cemetery, accessed 15/7/10
Levy, Paul (2010) obituary in the Independent, 3/7/10
Pagh, Nancy (2002) Seriously Emily, a review essay, BC Studies, no. 133, Spring
Watts, Janet (2010) Obituaries: Dame Beryl Bainbridge. The Guardian newspaper, 3/7/2010.
Weeks, David and James, Jamie (1995) Eccentrics: A study of sanity and strangeness. Villiard.
Woolf, Virginia (1975) A Room of one’s own. Penguin Books

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