by Robert Amos
Emily Carr is, to my mind, the most important artist Canada has produced. To live and create in Victoria, British Columbia, the city which was her home, allows me to share her insights and inspiration at every turn.
Carr (1871-1945) had a long and creative life, reinventing herself many times. She grew up in a family of strict propriety in this British colonial outpost but soon asserted an independent, adventurous spirit. After early training in San Francisco and London, she mastered the English watercolor technique, applying it to her city for documentary purposes. During the first 20 years of my career, I also made paintings of Victoria with watercolors, making a record of my own times.
In 1909 Carr went to Paris and Brittany, pushing her art education forward and picking up Fauvist colors and bold brushwork. Returning to Canada, she applied this expressionist freedom to her record of the Indian villages of the northern British Columbia coast. Though entirely unknown to the wider world, she was at the time the most modern artist in Canada. Like Carr’s, my own work has also become bigger and more expressive over the years. My studies of arbutus madrone, a tree native to this coast, necessitated my switch to the vivid colors of acrylic paint.
After 1928, influenced by her Theosophist friend, Lawren Harris, a member of Canada’s Group of Seven painters, Carr moved beyond documentary realism and came to express her profound spiritual connection to the land. Her visits with First Nations people inspired a long series of powerful pictures, including her renowned canvases of totem poles. In my own training in Toronto in the early 1970s, mixing art and religion or anything spiritual was considered heresy—the formalism of Clement Greenberg was our dogma. When I arrived on the west coast in 1975, Carr’s example allowed me to connect with a higher purpose. At its best, painting is for me, as it was for her, an act of worship.
After 1933 Carr broke free from her influences and developed a calligraphic style, swiftly brushing hymns of joy onto large sheets of manila paper. Using house paint thinned with gasoline, she created oils with the fluid directness of watercolor. This calligraphic language of the brush is something else I share with Emily Carr, although I use ink and brushes with absorbent papers from China and Japan, capturing with Asian materials my reality here on the coast.
In her final years, Carr suffered from heart problems and was bedridden. At this stage she took up her pen and wrote five volumes of stories and hundreds of pages of journal entries. All of her books remain in print, among them Klee Wyck, The Book of Small, and The House of All Sorts, which continue to charm readers of all ages with their wit, insight and good common sense about matters of concern to artists, among other things. By example, Carr has shown that an artist’s views on art can be more useful than the words of a critic or a historian. As I take pen in hand each week to write my column “On Art” in the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper I often think how rare it is that an artist’s words become part of the public discourse.
My paintings don’t look like Emily Carr’s, but I sense that we are inspired by the same things: an attachment to this place, the use of many materials for our expressive purposes, and the act of creation as a sort of worship. Every day, Carr’s example colors the way I see my world. To have such a powerful and pervasive example close at hand is a treasure indeed.
About the Author
Find out more about Emily Carr at emilycarr.ca and emilycarr.com. Learn more about Robert Amos at robertamos.com