Curated by Haema Sivanesan | Graham Gallery
An artist named Lee Nam, a Chinese immigrant to British Columbia at the turn of the 20th century, is known solely through the journals of Emily Carr. Carr refers to Nam as a painter, a friend, and someone she regarded as a fellow outsider. In her book, The House of All Sorts, Carr, who mounted art exhibitions in her home, recalls how she met Lee Nam.
"A young Chinese came to my door carrying a roll of painting. He had heard about the exhibition, had come to show his work to me - beautiful watercolours done in Oriental style. He was very anxious to carry his work further...I invited him to show in place of the flower painter and he hung a beautiful exhibition."
Montreal-based artist Karen Tam, draws on archival research to speculate on artistic influence and exchange between Carr and Nam. Tam re-imagines Lee Nam's painting studio, on Cormorant Street in Victoria's Chinatown, to evoke the presence of an unknown artist.
Carr recorded that Lee Nam wanted to take art lessons from her as he had a keen interest in Western culture. Yet, she saw him as a representative of Oriental art, and through him had direct access to Chinese brush painting. In observing his paintings, Carr witnessed an economy of means and spontaneity; she appreciated the life and spirit given to his paintings and wanted him to teach her. Carr's experiments with brush painting of the 1930's, exploring British Columbia's coastal landscapes, led her to develop a technique using oils thinned with gasoline on brown paper. Her works from the mid-1930's parallel painting formulae outlined in The Mustard Seed Garden Manual, a Qing dynasty manual of Chinese landscape painting.
The two artists apparently exchanged paintings. So, somewhere in the archives of Emily Carr are works by Lee Nam. And perhaps somewhere in China is an unknown painting by Emily Carr.