Chasing Emily

In the Footsteps of a Forest-Loving Canadian Artist

One of my favorite authors is Susan Vreeland, who wrote historical fiction that focused on actual artists. Years ago, Melissa and I both read one of her books, The Forest Lover, about a painter from British Columbia, Canada, named Emily Carr. Carr studied in Europe in the early 1900s, learned about impressionism, and then returned home to find that western Canada wasn’t ready for her style of painting. Carr loved the wild forests of the British Columbia coast and the lives and traditions of their First Nations inhabitants. She traveled far off the beaten path of her day to see both.

Many of my favorite Emily Carr paintings are forest scenes: some full of green swirls of motion and shafts of light, others full of dense, shadowy stillness. She also painted beautiful and intense pictures of the carved wooden totem poles that are an important part of First Nations culture in coastal British Columbia. They and their carvers’ way of life were disappearing rapidly in Carr’s day, and she felt an anthropologist’s passion to record them in their surroundings, before they decayed away or ended up in museums.

Besides looking her up online after we read The Forest Lover, we found a jigsaw puzzle of one of Emily Carr’s woodland paintings. You really learn whether you like an artist’s work when you assemble it piece by painstaking piece, seeing all the tiny details of color and brushwork.

When we visited Vancouver in 2012, before a trip with our mothers to Olympic National Park in Washington State, we made a beeline to the Vancouver Art Gallery, which owns a large collection of Emily Carr paintings. Trooping through the entire big museum, we were very disappointed to find only two of her paintings on display. We had to content ourselves with looking at books and post cards in the museum store to see more of her work.

It turns out, we were searching for Emily Carr in the wrong place.

Where she is remembered and celebrated is in her hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, a 19th-century port city across the water from Vancouver on the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island.

From Her Deathplace to Her Birthplace

When a housesit brought us to Victoria this summer, we immediately starting seeing traces of Emily Carr all around us. The first occurred by accident a few hours after we arrived in the city. For the night before our housesit began, I had booked a room at the James Bay Inn, a 100-year-old hotel that I picked because it got good reviews and had slightly less exorbitant rates than other downtown hotels that were available. When we hauled our suitcases up the front stairs into the lobby, we were greeted by reproductions of dozens of Emily Carr paintings, some of which we’d never seen before. It turns out that Carr died in the hotel building in 1945, while it was being used as a hospital during World War II.

Emily Carr in her studio in the 1930s

The next day, while I was buying groceries across town for our housesit, a book caught my eye in the book and magazine aisle. There, among the romance novels and spy thrillers and self-help volumes was a new compilation of stories from Emily Carr’s diaries and journals, illustrated with her sketches. There was only one copy on the shelf, and I scooped it up, marveling. Nowhere else have I ever seen a book about an artist in a grocery store.

Not far from our housesit, at a little museum called the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, we found a special exhibition about Emily Carr. Titled Seeing and Being Seen, it featured paintings by Emily Carr and works by later artists who were influenced by her. There in that small room of a small museum in Victoria, we found more appreciation for Carr’s art than we had in the big Vancouver Art Gallery on the mainland, even though Carr worked in Vancouver for many years.

Forest scenes before and after Carr’s art studies in Europe show the change in her style, which became too avant garde for western Canada

Later we toured the house in Victoria that Emily Carr’s father built in 1863. Emily was born,  grew up, and started painting in that house, although she and her siblings eventually sold it after her parents died. We saw the bed where she was born, which seemed fitting since we’d spent the night in the hotel/hospital where she died. At the Carr House, a wonderful tour guide filled in many details of Carr’s life that we hadn’t gleaned online and showed us old family photographs. In the house’s tiny gift shop, we bought a copy of Carr’s most famous book, Klee Wick, a collection of stories about her time among Indigenous Canadians. The book won prominent awards when it was published in 1941 and put Carr in the public eye for the first time, just a few years before her death.

The Carr family house in Victoria
An early sketch by Carr of a First Nations village near Ucluelet

Victoria’s appreciation for Emily Carr was confirmed when we found a statue of her near the Inner Harbor, on a corner in front of the city’s landmark Empress Hotel. From the photos we’d seen at the Carr House, we recognized it as a depiction of Carr in her later years, with her pet monkey, Woo, on her shoulder and one of her many dogs at her feet. Later, we stumbled on a mural of Carr and Woo on the side of an art-supply store in Victoria.

Part of a totem pole displayed outside the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria
A painting by Carr of a very similar pole

Beyond Victoria

Echoes of Emily Carr continued after we left Victoria and started exploring farther north on Vancouver Island.

Totem poles from coastal British Columbia fascinated Carr and appeared frequently in her drawings and paintings. We saw some totem poles from places she’d traveled—including some that were very similar to ones she’d sketched—at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. Our totem pole education continued in the small town of Duncan on the eastern side of Vancouver Island. For the past 35 years, Duncan has been commissioning First Nations artists to carve totem poles with images that are important to them and that reflect their families’ heritage. Duncan’s collection has grown to 44 poles and has become an attraction for visitors.

Because the totem poles were new, the town could include signs with information about the artists and their accounts of the stories and meaning behind the images on the poles. Learning to identify different animals and motifs, and seeing different artists’ versions of a given story or theme, really broadened our appreciation for this art form. And every time I studied a totem pole and marveled at its artistry, I thought of Emily Carr and understood her fascination with them. I was lucky I didn’t have to travel for days in small canoes and camp on deserted, mosquito-infested beaches to see them.

Because we were visiting Vancouver Island in its high season, we had to book our lodgings far ahead of time. One of the places I picked for us to stay, based on recommendations from other travelers, was the small town of Ucluelet on the island’s rugged western coast. It was a delightful coincidence, weeks after making those travel arrangements, to open my newly purchased copy of Carr’s book Klee Wick and see that the first story was titled “Ucluelet.”

Sure enough, on our first night there, taking a walk down to the little harbor and stopping (as we always do) to read any informational plaque that anyone has bothered to put up, we chuckled to see a photograph of a familiar face. There was a plaque about our old friend Emily, describing how her visit to the former Indigenous village in Ucluelet at age 15 exposed her to landscapes, people, and ideas that she would explore in paint and in print for the rest of her life. It felt good to be in Emily Carr’s footsteps once again.

Sunset scene in Ucluelet

We spent the rest of our time on Vancouver Island reading the books by and about Carr that we’d purchased. They confirmed what we’d come to suspect: Not only was she a gifted painter and a beautiful, spare writer, but she was a fierce social critic who was many decades ahead of her time in decrying the efforts of white Canadian society to assimilate Indigenous people by forcibly erasing their culture. As Canada wrestles with that past today, amid continuing revelations about the harsh treatment of Indigenous children forced into boarding schools, Emily Carr seems like a woman for our times as much as for her own.

As we drove around Vancouver Island, we saw many post-logging scenes similar to this one that Carr painted

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