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’


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

Dent 2014 010

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