On permanent display is the work of British Columbia’s foremost historical artist Emily Carr. An exhibition including paintings, excerpts from her books and archival images offers an insightful look at this inspiring local artist who captured the BC landscape and the lives of its First Nations peoples in paint.
That Emily Carr described herself as “a little old woman on the edge of nowhere” is often cited as proof of her low self-confidence and disconnection with the people and movements at the forefront of Canadian art. However, the context in which she said it was ironic. While Carr did indeed harbour feelings of isolation, blaming geography, finances, and her failing health as barriers to her inclusion in what she saw as a burgeoning art scene in the rest of Canada, she overcame this through her determination to grow as a modern artist. Furthermore, her identification as an outsider was belied by the fact that Carr was well-travelled, well-educated, and connected to various cultural figures who supported the realization of her remarkable talent.
Carr triumphed over isolation through her focused drive to contribute significantly to something larger than herself. Part of how she accomplished this was by taking advantage of all that her West Coast location had to offer. While she acknowledged the peripheral location of Victoria, she willingly lived there because she loved it. Indeed, she expressed this sentiment explicitly in her journal when recounting a visit from collector Harold Mortimer Lamb:
“It’s a shame to think of you stuck out here in this corner of the world unnoticed and unknown,” says he. “It’s exactly where I want to be,” says I. And it is, too. This is my country. What I want to express is here and I love it. Amen!(Emily Carr, May 1934).
Her deeply felt spiritual connection with the natural environment and First Nations culture of Vancouver Island speaks to us today through her words and paintings. She immersed herself in the people and landscape, and drew upon both for inspiration and subject matter for her painting that, in the first half of the 20th century, represented some of the most groundbreaking work in British Columbia and Canada. For this, Emily Carr remains a figure of influence in Canada, identified as a pioneer of modernism. She was an artist, writer, and mentor to younger artists. We also recognize her as a visionary, one who imagined and called for what could be possible in the sleepy cultural scene of the Victoria of her day.