Emily Carr was a Canadian artist and writer heavily inspired by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. One of the first painters in Canada to adopt a post-impressionist painting style, Carr did not receive widespread recognition for her work until later in her life. As she matured, the subject matter of her painting shifted from aboriginal themes to landscapes, and, in particular, forest scenes. As a writer, Carr was one of the earliest chroniclers of life in British Columbia. The Canadian Encyclopedia describes her as a "Canadian icon".
Her parents were English people who had settled in the small provincial town of Victoria, where her father became a successful merchant and respected citizen. Emily grew up there with a brother and 4 older sisters in a disciplined and orderly household where English manners and values were maintained.
She had no serious role models to follow while growing up, but as a child Emily Carr had experienced the pleasures of drawing and sketching. When she was orphaned in her early teens she persuaded her guardians to permit her at the age of 18 to go to San Francisco to study art at the California School of Design, an art school where instruction followed conservative models of the time. There she learned the basic elements of the craft of painting as it was then taught. She returned home after 2½ years, began painting competent little watercolours, and set up painting classes for children.
In 1899 Emily Carr traveled to London where she studied at the Westminster School of Art. She traveled also to the artistic colony in Cornwall, returning to British Columbia in 1905, where she took a teaching position in Vancouver at the 'Ladies Art Club' that she held for four years. Vancouver at that period was experiencing an economic boom, buoyed by the success of the lumber and fishing industries, and taking advantage of its position as the Pacific terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and had roared ahead of the provincial capital, Victoria, in population and economic activity.
While on holiday to Alaska with her sister Alice in 1907, Carr again came into contact with indigenous peoples in remote villages and determined to use her art to document the sculptural and artistic legacy of the aboriginal people that she encountered. Still determined to further her knowledge of the rapidly evolving trends, in 1910 Carr returned to Europe, this time to Paris to study at the Académie Colarossi. Influenced by the post-impressionists and the fauvists, Carr returned to British Columbia and exhibited her French paintings.
Emily Carr continued to paint in her vivid, painterly "French style" for about 10 years, producing small paintings that would have been seen as advanced in any part of Canada. But it was not the approach that was to lead her into the fullness of her achievement. By 1913 she had produced a substantial body of distinguished work, but dispirited by the absence of effective encouragement and support - which in any case an artistically unsophisticated Victoria would not have been able to accord her - and unable to live by the sale of her art, she built a small apartment house in Victoria for income. She spent most of the next 15 depressing years managing the apartment and painting little.
Over time Carr's work had come to the attention of several influential and supportive people, including Marius Barbeau, prominent ethnologist at the National Museum in Ottawa. Barbeau, in turn, persuaded Eric Brown, Director of Canada's National Gallery to visit Carr in 1927. Brown invited Carr to exhibit as part of an exhibition on West Coast aboriginal art at the National Gallery. Carr sent 26 oil paintings east, along with samples of her pottery and rugs with indigenous designs. The exhibit, which included works by Edwin Holgate and A.Y. Jackson traveled to Toronto and Montreal. The following spring Carr herself traveled east, timing her journey so that she would be able to meet members of the Group of Seven, at that time Canada's most recognized modern painters. This encounter was to change the direction of Carr's artistic life, reinvigorating her sense of purpose and ending the terrible artistic isolation of the previous 15 years. Lawren Harris became a particularly important support. "You are one of us," he told Carr, welcoming her into the ranks of Canada's leading modernists despite her own self-deprecating attitude.
Carr continued throughout the late 1920s and 1930s with trips away from Victoria. Her last trip north was in the summer of 1928, when she made a trip to the Nass and Skeena Rivers, as well as to the Queen Charlottes. She travelled to Friendly Cove and the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, and then up to Lillooet in 1933. Recognition of her work grew steadily, and she was exhibited in London, Paris, Washington and Amsterdam, as well as major Canadian cities.
In 1939 Carr suffered a serious heart-attack, and moved in with her sister Alice. Her focus shifted from her painting to her writing. With the assistance of her friend Ira Dilworth, principal of Victoria High School, Carr was able to see her first book, Klee Wyck, published in 1941. Carr was awarded the Governor-General's Award for non-fiction the following year for Klee Wyck. Carr died in Victoria on March 2, 1945, shortly before she was to have been awarded an honourary doctorate by the University of British Columbia.
Sources: Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia