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


State of the Arts, The Haliburton Highlander

Victoria Ward

Olympian challenges

Summer is upon us and the Olympic Games this year will not only showcase excellence in sport but also art. In fact the artistic expo adorning the games will be unprecedented in terms of excellence and funding. Londoners have been told all year to brace themselves for cuts, but this summer, there are pots of money for art!

I’m not surprised a global powerhouse like London would have the finest examples of art there is while the world is watching; I just can’t get my brain around the idea that it seems to be okay to wreck unions and destroy social programs with austerity cuts and yet have a whack of cash in the ready to fund art.

I realize that private money and a host of interrelated funding bodies help to make these huge art forums happen, and that it isn’t just governments that put up the money but still. With anti-austerity protests happening just next door in Montreal and people exhausted by endless economic uncertainty it seems strange to me that the art world carries on without a nod to the plight of our most vulnerable people: the middle class.

Perhaps you don’t think the middle class are vulnerable. I beg to differ. Who has been paying for education, art, roads, clean water, and protection from pollution, (the list goes on), for many decades? Not the enormously wealthy I can guarantee you that. People become wealthy because they figure out how to get out of paying for such things. No, it is the people among us who work over forty hours a week at jobs they might love or not, and pay taxes, people who have cottages here for example.

I guess I don’t understand why the art world isn’t standing up for these hard working people who put make art a focus in their lives. In this country it could be that since our Prime Minister has said that the government will get out of funding anything that does not fit into their mandate, artists are sheepish to get involved. We already live at recession worthy incomes. But wait, the Canada Council for the Arts has said that it’s funding hasn’t been touched. I therefore await the federally funded art work dedicated to anti-austerity and the death of our middle class.

During the Paris Commune in 1871 artist Gustav Courbet lead a huge group of protesters toward the statue of Napoleon hoping to pull it down in support of the communards. He was charged with vandalism. When workers took up the fight for socialism in Mexico artists Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo marched in the streets with them – he missing an art opening in New York for it. Musicians such as Billy Bragg, Tom Morello and Canadian Matthew Good have dedicated much of their careers to promoting ideas of justice and compassion.

These artists fight for the working man who may have been a miner or a factory worker, but today they may be a very tired mom of two, with a junior executive position in a media firm that may or may not be bought by some huge corporation which may or may not lay her off. Her lifestyle (including money to purchase art for example), her dreams and her children’s education are allowed to just hang in the balance while world leaders debate whether countries that have given the world democracy and the Renaissance are worthy of help.

I admit that the prospect of seeing no less than ten dance pieces by the late genius Pina Bausch (which is scheduled during the Olympics) might make me forget the plight of the common man. But will these huge, million dollar art extravaganzas foster solutions to bridge the gap between people who can afford the big tickets and those who can only attend the free stuff?

Here at home we have municipalities completing their cultural plans and I am hoping that included are ideas toward closing these kinds of gaps. Great art must be available to all, not just American Express Gold Card Members.

Yet, the arts must persevere regardless of whose in charge or who’s paying the bills; Rivera was funded principally by those quintessential capitalists the Rockefellers. But we need to consider what side of history we want our work to end up on.

Art always matters but it can push the society it comes from to greatness when it makes a decision about what it wants to say. There are many examples of this but someone I keep seeing mentioned over and over, especially now, is the British writer George Orwell. By innovating journalism through taking up the actual work he was writing about (coal mining for instance), his work has become a touchstone for a different age but with some similar hopes. We all want to realize our potential with dignity but this only happens when we have a society that believes this and is able to pay for it.