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Killer Whale Rug

Killer Whale Rug, c.1929
98.0 x 78.0 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Gift of John Davis Hatch, Lenox, Massachusetts, 1975

not titled

not titled, 1924-1930
clay and paint
14.3 x 15.4 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Bequest of Alice Carr


Platter, 1924-1930
clay and paint
2.3 x 28.1 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Bequest of Alice Carr

not titled

not titled, 1924-1930
clay and paint
5.5 x 11.8 x 7.7 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Bequest of Alice Carr

Arts and Crafts (1913-1927)

Although the newspaper accounts of Emily Carr's 1913 exhibition at Drummond Hall suggest a mixed reaction to her work, she nonetheless felt rejected and returned to Victoria. There she built Hill House, intending to establish an apartment house that would supplement her income and provide her with the freedom to work on her art. The timing of her foray into the world of property ownership and management could not have been worse: the onset of World War I triggered an increase in the cost of living along with a reduced demand for rental apartments. These forces had the ironic effect of consigning Carr, a woman who had consistently defied gender prescriptions, to a life of domestic labour.

With no extra money to hire help, Carr was obliged to act as landlady, rental agent, cleaning woman and chef. She ran the house as a dictator and had many clashes with her tenants, whom she later immortalized in her book The House of All Sorts.1 Carr claims that "[f]or about fifteen years [she] did not paint."2 This was not entirely true — she painted sporadically and exhibited in local art society shows in Victoria and Seattle — but she had neither the time nor the energy to commit to art. Her paintings from this period are mostly small landscape studies in her French style.

Carr supported herself throughout trying economic times by way of hard work and ingenuity. She grew large quantities of vegetables and fruit in her backyard gardens, sold some of the produce for profit and used the rest to feed herself and her boarders. For a brief time she also raised chickens and rabbits for commercial sale. In 1917 she established a bobtail kennel and spent many sleepless nights bottle-feeding puppies and nursing them to health. Her own memoirs convey the rapport she felt with the bobtail mothers and the implicit trust they placed in her to care for their offspring. Between 1917 and 1921 she raised and sold more than 350 bobtail puppies, earning much-needed income.

Carr also made pottery and hooked rugs that incorporated First Nations designs. For a time, her clay works were quite popular and sold at craft fairs across the country. She was ambivalent about working Native imagery into her pottery designs, anxious that she was committing a disservice to Aboriginal people by profiting from their traditional culture. The Aboriginal people of the Pacific Northwest did not use clay, so she considered her work a misuse of their motifs. She felt particularly bad when others, seeing how successful she was in the tourist trade, began to copy her designs with no respect for their traditional importance.

I ornamented my pottery with Indian designs — that was why the tourists bought it. I hated myself for prostituting Indian Art; our Indians did not "pot," their designs were not intended to ornament clay — but I did keep the Indian design pure.

Because my stuff sold, other potters followed my lead and, knowing nothing of Indian Art, falsified it. This made me very angry. I loved handling the smooth cool clay. I loved the beautiful Indian designs, but I was not happy about using Indian designs on material for which it was not intended and I hated seeing them distorted, cheapened by those who did not understand or care as long as their pots sold.

– "Growing Pains" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 439.

Carr's life continued in this fashion for many years, and after being forced several times to give up her own studio and apartment to boarders and sleep in a tent in the yard, she no longer even considered herself an artist.

Possibly the biggest turning point in her life occurred in 1927, when she had almost abandoned the notion that she would ever return to art as serious vocation. Following a visit to her studio in 1926, the anthropologist Marius Barbeau wrote to Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, informing him of Carr's work and suggesting that the Gallery purchase her entire collection. Brown showed little interest at the time, but he decided to visit her studio when he and Barbeau began planning a show entitled Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art - Native and Modern.

Carr was not particularly friendly when Brown approached her on the porch of her Victoria home, but he persuaded her to show her paintings, and he was impressed by the quality of her work and astounded by her total isolation from the artistic movements of eastern North America. He selected twenty-six paintings in addition to hooked rugs and pottery for inclusion in the exhibition, the best representation of any artist in the modern section, and suggested that she read Frederick Housser's book A Canadian Art Movement to familiarize herself with the Group of Seven. He also offered her a complimentary rail pass to attend the opening.

Carr immediately went out and purchased Housser's book and was amazed by the work of the Group of Seven, particularly the reproduction of Lawren Harris's Above Lake Superior. In November 1927, on her way to Ottawa, Carr had the opportunity to meet Harris and the other members of the Group. Upon viewing their work she discovered a parallel between her own difficulties in portraying the vastness of the west coast and their attempts to represent the northern Ontario landscape. For the first time Carr felt that she was a part of something — participating in the development of Canadian Modernism.

Went with Miss Buell and Mrs. Housser to tea at Mr. A.Y. Jackson's Studio Building. I loved his things, particularly some snow things of Quebec and three canvases up Skeena River. I felt a little as if beaten at my own game. His Indian pictures have something mine lack — rhythm, poetry. Mine are so downright. But perhaps his haven't quite the love in them of the people and the country that mine have. How could they? He is not a Westerner and I took no liberties. I worked for history and cold fact. Next time I paint Indians I'm going off on a tangent tear. There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness, the Western breath of go-to-the-devil-if-you-don't-like-it, the eternal big spaceness [sic] of it. Oh the West! I'm of it and I love it.

– "Hundreds and Thousands" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 656.

She first visited A.Y. Jackson and admired his "Indian paintings," feeling "a little as if beaten at [her] own game."3 She then went to the studios of the other members of the Group living in Toronto, but it was the work of Lawren Harris that had the greatest influence on her. After she had spent some time in his Toronto studio, Harris became the central figure in Carr's life, guiding her artistic development and educating her about the importance of theosophy and the role of spirituality in art.

Carr's recollections of this time reveal her insecurities and lack of confidence, but the psychological effect of her acceptance in the eastern art community was profound. When she saw her work hanging with the Group's at the National Gallery exhibition, it became clear that she had much to learn from the men's work in terms of composition and form. Back in Victoria, Carr immediately began sketching and painting with a greater intensity than at any other time in her career. After more than a decade of limited artistic production, financial stress and personal and professional frustration, Carr resumed her exploration of First Nations culture and the west coast landscape with renewed vigour and passion.

Oh, God, what have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world. Chords way down in my being have been touched. Dumb notes have struck chords of wonderful tone. Something has called out of somewhere. Something in me is trying to answer.

It is surging through my whole being, the wonder of it all, like a great river rushing on, dark and turbulent, and rushing and irresistible, carrying me away on its wild swirl like a helpless little bundle of wreckage. Where, where? Oh, these men, this Group of Seven, what have they created? — a world stripped of earthiness, shorn of fretting details, purged, purified; a naked soul, pure and unashamed; lovely spaces filled with wonderful serenity. What languages do they speak, those silent, awe-filled spaces? I do not know. Wait and listen; you shall hear by and by. I long to hear yet I'm half afraid. I think perhaps I shall find God here, the God I've longed and hunted for and failed to find. Always he's seemed nearer out in the big spaces, sometimes almost within reach but never quite. Perhaps in this newer, wider, space-filled vision I shall find him.

Jackson, Johnson, Varley, Lismer, Harris — up-up-up-up-up! Lismer and Harris stir me most. Lismer is swirling, sweeping on, but Harris is rising into serene, uplifted planes, above the swirl into holy places.

– "Hundreds and Thousands" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 658.

1 Emily Carr, The House of All Sorts (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1944).
2 Carr, "Growing Pains," in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, ed. Doris Shadbolt (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997), p. 439.
3 Carr, "Hundreds and Thousands," Complete Writings, p. 656.