Time travelling with Emily Carr: totems, animals, art and sustainability.

Once I got there, I realised I should have brought my coat and some provisions, as this proved to be an adventurous journey by forests and woods, going back in time to a world of myths and ancient wisdom. Because meeting the art of Canadian painter Emily Carr takes you to the heart of the wilderness of the North American landscape and the rich world of the First Nations.  The exhibition of her work -sadly finishing today- at Dulwych Picture Gallery is really an unexpected encounter with majestic landscapes, totems, mighty animals, and sublime feelings.

Even Emily herself could have never imagined that her first journey to the West coast of Vancouver Island, in the company of her sister Alice, would take her to the depth of times through the vortex of Natural powers. From an early age Emily loved to doodle and draw, her cartoons of family situations, her own self and her travels are an exquisite journal of growing up and constant questioning. Firstly she attended art school in San Francisco, where she acquired basic tools to express her talents. At her return she toured the West Canada (British Columbia) in company of her sister Alice: this journey would change her life. Initially it was a sort of “gap year”, two “nice girls” (white, english descendants, middle class young ladies) going around, meeting the natives, and discovering a great country. Albeit the sketches of that journey comically showed their adventures and encounters, the impact was such, that Emily found her passion: the encounter with the sublime, the respect for the disappearing indigenous traditions and the close encounter with Nature.

Digital Paintings by BAcevedo. Using the App Brushes.

The interesting here is to note that Emily Carr developed her style and visual language throughout her encounters with the landscape and the indigenous communities of the First Nations. For instance, the first travels in 1907-1909 to Alaska are depicted in watercolours following the English tradition. In this first trip she first found the Totems (carved sculptures in wood, normally in front of buildings and houses), which basically are a link between the ancient past and the present. As Diana Uribe said in her current programs about History of Canada (March 2015, the totems are like “time tunnels”, because although they are “recent” in the sense of their popularity in the 19th century (1830-1895) just the time when Emily found them, still, it opens the door for understanding the ancient wisdom of men living with nature and animals. For Freud, a totem is the spirit of a divinity that people use as a transference of the deity’s power; for Levi-Strauss, totems are ways of telling stories, time travelling devices connecting past with present. In contrast, for the christian missionaries arriving in the New Continent, the totems were “pagan idols” (the misunderstanding!!!!) and hence heavily prosecuted and destroyed (indeed, the totems were proscribed from 50 years until 1951). These contrasting views, between the inherent symbolic power of the totem and the christian perception of idolatry, are also present in Emily Carr’s time, but in her “deep living” in the majestic landscape, she opted for appreciating their might. In her first encounters with this ancient wisdom she then found her mission: responding to the rapid disappearing of these majestic objects, she decided that she would record, paint and share the aesthetic aspects of this deep ancient ethic of the First nations.

Digital Paintings by BAcevedo. Using the App Brushes.

The impact of living and learning from these indigenous communities and their ancient knowledge has a profound impact in her work. She aims at depicting the earthiness of the relationship between animals and people, between traditions and nature, as she sees how the colonization advances by destroying and devaluation the original inhabitants of the land. The need to depict the expressive power of this wisdom, their animals and symbols, would take her again to another travel. In search of visual tools, she embarked in 1912 to the continent where she found a more vivid and ground breaking palette in Paris. She came into contact with Harry Phelan Gibb and scottish colourist JD Fergusson, who were at the time influenced by Matisse and the fauvist. As argued by Ian DeJardin in the catalogue of the exhibition:

“At her return Emily threw herself into her work, producing hundred of Native themed paintings in her new vibrant and colourful modern style. and that is clearly expressed in the change of her palette and painting style.”

Unfortunately, the world was not yet prepared for this, and her paintings did not sell well! The period between 1913-1027 “were Carr’s darkest years”, she was deep in poverty, trying to make means to ends, and abandoning big paintings. She kept, however, an illustrated diary that would depict her struggle with depression and poverty, yet, at the same time it is hilarous and self-deprecating. Her luck would turn with an unexpected invitation by Eric Brown, the director of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, to be part of the exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern. This not only brought her long-due recognition, but most importantly, it connected her with the Group of Seven – a group of modernist landscape painters- who had created a new sensibility towards the majestic landscape and the value of indigenous knowledge. Of course she was welcome with open arms to this group, not only that, she was revered and respected as a pioneer in this quest. Her depictions of the spirit of the wood are simply breath-taking: it is the spirit, the sensual aspects of the wood, the cold breeze or the intensity of being connected with trees and clouds, it is the sensorial, the feeling of the temperature and humidity of the forest, the presence of rain (literally announced and watering Emily Carr’s painting), the spiritual realisation that all of us are part of this big landscape, atoms swirling in the great dance of the energy in the universe! That we are raven and bears; trembling leaves and mighty trees; singing rivers or roaring winds… that we are all One and One for all.

What is interesting here is to note that this appreciation for the landscape, as pushed by the artists, helped also to develop a new sensitivity toward being Canadian. As argued by Sarah Milroy (in the Catalogue), Emily Carr matters to Canadians because of her connections with the quest for a Canadian Identity:

“Like Carr – or any person of sensitivity who comes here from somewhere else- you find yourself wondering: What would it be to belong to this place as the Kwakwaka’wakw people do, with their centuries-old family lineages? What would it mean to be in this landscape if your identity was rooted in the clan identifications of the wolf, the eagle, the whale, the raven?”

Emily’s parents were English, and being in a new land, they became even more English! She is Canadian, but linked to the Europe traditions, rooted in a New world landscape, thriving between indigenous traditions and hybrid heritage from the Western world. Similarly, the modern Canadian culture has drawn upon the power of totems and stories to reignite a search for identity. Understanding the First Nations, that during the colonial centuries were ignored and despised, has become an important part of the recreation of Canadian history and present identity. Indeed, when visiting modern cities like Vancouver or Ottawa, the traveler finds a number of newly made and ancient totems.

As mentioned before totems are a sort of “time tunnels” and they talk about the myths and legends that created the world in the view of the original people. In her program, Diana Uribe, tells the story of why animals are so important in ancient cosmogony. It is something that I missed in the exhibition, despite the fact that there was a generous sample of indigenous objects, carved sculptures and ceramics depicting these mighty animals. The animals are so important and meaningful, hence, they are depicted as central beings of their stories. I will try just to mention some based on what I heard in Diana’s program:

183One of the most revered animals in the First Nations’ cosmogony is the Raven. He is the Father, the creator, a mythical animal that relate with the natural seasons and the movement of light and darkness of the Northern Hemisphere. For the Inuits, at the beginning it was all Darkness, but the Raven had appeared already, although it was shy, small and weak. One day the raven found some land and started walking through it… first hesitantly, but then more gingerly, then it saw that at every step he created something new: here water and rivers, there hills and mountains. He started to flap his wings and he then wondered, “who am I”, and seeing what he had created and he realised that he was the creator, and that from the shy raven he could become an artist of the universe. The raven saw something shining and by digging it out he found some bright quartz that became the sun. He kept on pecking around and he found a Man inside a giant bean, and there were more men and women, and the Raven taught them how to respect the other animals and the earth. But the men became irresponsible and were hunting more animals than they needed, so the Raven took the sun and left them in darkness. Later, the Raven had a son, and this baby raven found the bright sun hidden under a caribou skin and stole it… so his father said, “Ok, you may have the sun but you must let people to see it”, and this is because people can see more of the sun in the summer and less of it in winter, and that the dark time will remind people that they need to be respectful with the rest of the animals and honour the traditions and the laws of Nature. The Raven is so multifaceted animal: it is not only a creator, but also, it is naughty, playful, joyful, curious, ingenious!

185There is also the story of the wolves and the people. The story starts with a man whose family was starving, he was a bison hunter, but there were not bisons to hunt or to feed his family. He was desperate and in this situation he met a family of wolves, who found him so crestfallen. The hunter explained his situation and the wolf gave him a magical arrow and arch, and he could hunt around 6 bisons, and with this food the wolves and the man’s family were fully satisfied. After this feast, the wolves stayed with the family for a while, playing and living together… at some point, some wolves came back to the wilderness, while others stayed… the wolves who stayed with the family became dogs, helping humans to go through the wilderness, helping each other. The dogs then became people’s best friend!

There are many more stories linking animals with myths and men and people. And all of that is told in many ways: through totems and oral traditions, but also through the pioneer work of Emily Carr and others who saw the immense richness of this world in danger of extinction.  I think that continuing with previous reflections about the role of art in sustainability, Emily Carr is definitively one of the first artists to establish the relationship between the mission of art and the richness of nature and tradition. In her quest, there is not disconnection between what you do and what you are, also, her search for visual languages is driven by the search for her own voice, her identity, not only as a woman, but as a Canadian, as a “human being” immersed in a sublime landscape.

In my own process of finding my voice, I sympathise with Emily’s search… I also find that coming back to my roots and my values, albeit not totally clear, is the right path… or the path with heart (as Castaneda’s Don Juan would say). Another important aspect here is to highlight that her relationship with the environment is not limited to the “natural” environment, or the search for a “pure untouched wood”, it involves respect for human beings and traditions, and to realise that apart of scientific knowledge we also need stories, tales and myths connecting us (emotionally, ontologically, philosophically) with how we are living in the world.

Finally, Emily Carr journey is just so reaffirming in the sense of embracing uncertainty, trusting our instincts and taking those apparently small seeds (missions, visions, values, hunches) into work, expression and beautiful living.



As ever, the images of this blog are my own. Digital Paintings by BAcevedo using the App Brushes. Copyright Beatriz Acevedo Art.


Malroy, Sarah and Dejardin, Ian. (Editors) From the Forest to the Sea. Emily Carr in British Columbia. Art Gallery of Ontario and Dulwich Picture Gallery.


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