State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Emily Carr: loner + hipster

This month sees the inclusion of Vancouver art icon Emily Carr into the über pretentious art festival dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany. Loner, spinster, landscape innovator and bush woman, Carr would be more than amused to see the flutter over this posthumous homage. Speculation is rampant as to why Carr would be included in a festival that adheres to stringent esoteric codes. Not making work out of salt and calling it Infinite Objection? Forget it, don’t bother showing up.
Carr’s life is as much a mystery as her work defies categorization. Is it landscape? Mysticism? Documentation? She had loads of exhibitions, traveled widely, wrote a very popular book about herself Klee Wyck , and yet the art world still can’t account for this very strong willed woman who had rats as pets and suffered from terrible anxiety.
I was not surprised by the seemingly sudden international interest in Carr. This past year the Museum of Modern Art in New York had its first solo exhibition of a female artist in decades, Cindy Sherman. There just aren’t tons of female art heroes. Carr represents the female equivalent of Van Gogh, making Georgia O’Keefe Matisse? Frida Kahlo then is Dali? Woah, these analogies are getting out of hand. What I am getting at is, Carr is an art titan of sorts and had the right lady bits. The art world needs her. That she was isolated and spent time with Haida people makes her even cooler.
I got to see her work in Vancouver. It is really the only way to see it because then you visit the coastline and connections don’t come any more extraordinary. Her work always frightened me a little. It’s dark and full of an almost violent energy.
It’s the kind of landscape work I believe in; unveiling the restless truth of nature.
I could never however relate to her personally. Although I may have moved here and spend way too much time on my own in a cabin, in the woods, I feel strongly about connections outside my world. I also stubbornly refuse to be alone. I like my partner and I like having a partner. Many female artists have needed “a room of their own” as Virginia Woolf once wrote, and though I agree with it in principal, I also believe that everyone just needs to work in a way that suits them. I suit sharing. Maybe I watched too much Sesame Street when I was young.
Being an artist is very difficult but being a mom is way more difficult. Trying to combine them isn’t a recipe for an easy life. It makes sense that so many of these great female artists didn’t. Emily Carr has become an icon for many reasons other than just her art; being a loner and childless is one of them. She represents someone who made a decision with her life in spite of the times she lived in. Possibly, she may not have felt it was a ‘decision’ and that being alone was the only way she could cope with the demands of being a professional artist. Regardless, her isolation now seems fearless and extraordinary to a new generation of artists, male and female.
Maybe dOCUMENTA(13) sees it this way, but I don’t know because I didn’t understand anything that I read on their website. Apparently they keep their curatorial ideas a secret.
It doesn’t matter because as I have said before, you can’t count artists out at any point in their career or life. Emily Carr’s time has come and gone in several different eras. I remember that in the seventies she was cool because of the whole Earth Mother thing. In the eighties it was because she was supposedly a lesbian. In the nineties people embraced her love of all things aboriginal. Today, I think it is her loneliness or more accurately, aloneness.
As we spend more and more time ‘connected’ we seem to find solace in those spirits that choose silence, nature and animals as friends. We love stories about people who decide to leave their busy urban lives for one of simplicity.
But the bucolic life isn’t easy and as many who live in the Highlands would agree, it just removes a certain kind of stress for another one. The city can have too much energy, the woods, sometimes not enough. You can get a job in the city; good luck here. I guess the big difference, the one that meant something to me was that in the city being around a lot of other people and their influence made me less creative not more. I did need the woods.
Emily Carr was a greater force than I, thankfully. Her seriousness and self determination, intimidating to some is an inspiration to me. She becomes an icon in spite of rhetoric, politics and the zeitgeist although I’m sure dOCUMENTA(13) will give it a good college try. She deserves any attention really because she did something that I admire most of all; she was inspired by the wilderness and painted it in all its intense and unpredictable glory.

from The Haliburton Highlander

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