Emily Carr twisted around on a camp stool searching for her missing Javanese monkey, Woo. They were in the midst of a rainforest on the edge of a small Indigenous village in the northern interior of British Columbia. She’d suffered rejection and had endured hard times, but after a successful exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 1927, she’d regained her self-confidence. Her quest for an artistic education had taken her from her home in Victoria to San Francisco, England and France and back. She’d revolted against the stuffy expectations of Victorian life and pursued a fierce independence while challenging herself to paint ancient trees and cultural artifacts.
But now, Woo was missing. Probably running around the forest in the little yellow dress Emily had made for her, and chewing on a stolen tube of oil paint. Emily screamed for her pet and the monkey popped up, with a blue blob running down her face, and perched on Carr’s shoulder. Emily sighed with relief, then gasped as she realized she’d poked her canvas with a burning cigarette when she swiveled around.
My modern day high school art students had prepared for an excursion to the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg to see the brilliant works of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries. I wanted to make the trip memorable, and help them understand the paintings and the people behind the art. They were excited to explore this unique gallery and stunning environment with acres of trees, gullies and pathways. When we entered the Carr gallery the teenage excitement was boiling over, to the chagrin of the pretentious docent.
One of my students, a blunt rebel in colourful gear, who felt a kinship with the eccentric Carr yelled, “There it is!”
The grade 10 art class bolted across the room and stopped before an oil painting of ancient Haida totems and soaring pine trees. They were quiet, searching for something in the painting beyond the obvious visual. Emily Carr tried to capture the spiritual essence of the Canadian landscape with compelling images, vigorous brush strokes and bold blocks of colour. But that’s not what they were searching for.
And sure enough, there it was. In the middle of the painting, revered by the art critics, the art collectors and the stern guides, we could all see it. A little bandage, carefully camouflaged with green and blue paint strokes, covered a cigarette burn.
Emily Carr’s private moment in a forest, almost 100 years ago came alive for the students. The teenagers recognized a kindred spirit – someone who was rebellious, curious, challenging and deeply sensitive. And she smoked cigarettes.
Our Sesquicentennial year is an opportunity to examine our history, cultural norms and geography and to recognize individuals who have helped shape the mythology of Canadian identity. It’s worth taking a journey to a Canadian Art Gallery to make a personal connection with Carr. She dedicated her life to developing an understanding of a changing environment and a vanishing cultural legacy.
Sharon Frayne is a writer and artist. She is a member of the Canadian Author's Association, the Niagara Writer's Circle and the Pumphouse Art Gallery. She looks for the universal experience and the mystery in everyday things.