`Will they find me small and fretful?'
I was working on a big totem with heavy woods behind. How badly I wanted that nameless thing! First there must be an idea, a feeling, or whatever you want to call it, then something that interested or inspired you sufficiently to make you desire to express it. Maybe it was an abstract idea that you've got to find a symbol for, or maybe it was a concrete form that you have to simplify or distort to meet your ends, but that starting point must pervade the whole. . . . '' So wrote Canadian west coast artist Emily Carr a few months after painting ``Blunden Harbor,'' one in a series of works in similar vein. It is an unusually powerful, not to say rather wild picture for a 59-year-old woman of English parentage to have painted in 1930.
It is a bold, determined work, nothing fidgety or fancy about it; and even in black and white you may detect a suggestion (far more evident in her forest and sky paintings) of Van Gogh.
``People often connect my work with Van Gogh -- compare it,'' she wrote in 1936. `` . . . but he felt the `go' and movement of life; his things `shimmered.' Mine wriggle and move a little but they don't get up and go like his.''
Carr was in fact a severe critic of her own work. ``I'm way behind them in drawing and in composition and rhythm and planes,'' she was to write, referring to a group of painters in central Canada. ``Will they know what's in me by those old Indian pictures, or will they feel disappointed and find me small and weak and fretful?''
This from a woman who, following studies in England, had traveled with a sister to Alaska, had returned to Europe to study in Paris, had worked in Indian villages in the Queen Charlotte Islands, and who later was to spend months out in the middle of nowhere, in a live-in ``van'' she labeled ``The Elephant,'' with four dogs, a rat called Susie, and a monkey named Woo. Nobody at that time could have been less ``small and weak and fretful'' than Emily Carr.
Fluidity -- an uninhibited outflow -- is what I think raises Carr's art above the ordinary. This picture displays, for the most part, a vertical fluidity, although there is, on close examination, a hardly less dramatic fluidity in her sky.
We know from Emily Carr's autobiography, ``Growing Pains,'' and her journals titled ``Hundreds and Thousands,'' what she wanted to bring to paintings such as this one.
``Do not try to do extraordinary things,'' Carr wrote in a note to herself, ``but do ordinary things with intensity. Push your idea to the limit, distorting if necessary to drive the point home . . . but stick to the one central idea, getting it across at all costs.''
And later on: ``It seems to me that a large part of painting is . . . a pouring forward toward the unknown, not a prying into things beyond, but a steady pressing toward the barriers, an effort to be on hand when the barriers lift.''
British Columbia and Indian culture were inseparable from Emily Carr's life and were the sources of her artistic drive and passion.
I can't look at a painting of hers without seeing a somewhat eccentric, fiercely independent, lovable person, with qualities of courage and tenacity which, in this age of highly organized, subsidized artists, are, to my way of thinking, very rare indeed.