Carr plunges into the wilderness

Like most Canadian artists, Emily Carr (1871-1945) is a cultural stranger in the United States. Few Americans recognize her brooding landscapes and her depiction of the art of the native people of western Canada - or know that she is widely regarded by Canadians as their most outstanding woman artist of the 20th century.

But a current show in Washington, D.C., may begin to change that. In "Places of Their Own: Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo," Carr's intense modernist canvases hang next to those of renowned American painter Georgia O'Keeffe and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. And, in the opinion of some critics, Carr's work almost overshadows theirs. She was the first painter, male or female, to convey a vision of the landscape of western Canada and move the depiction of nature into new abstract territory. Hers is an artistic voice crying in the wilderness that is now being heard in the US.

Emily Carr was born in 1871, in Victoria, British Columbia. Orphaned in her teens, she took her first major step toward realizing her artistic identity when she began painting the totem poles of native villages. Carr was a multicultural crusader, and in 1913 she organized her own exhibition of native-culture paintings and petitioned the local government to purchase her collection as documentation of indigenous art.

The provincial government, however, rejected her work, and Carr stopped painting for 11 years. At the start of this long season in obscurity, Carr, then 46, started a boarding house to support herself. The house became known as "The House of All Sorts," because of the variety of tenants living there.

But gradually, she began to paint again, and the pivotal relationship of Carr's career was forged when she met well-known Canadian artist Lawren Harris during a trip to Toronto in 1927. Harris was one of the so-called "Group of Seven" artists who established the definition of Canadian art as primarily the depiction of wilderness. He urged Carr to try a "deeper penetration into the life of nature" in her painting.

Carr followed Harris's advice and began to produce paintings that revealed the "inner meaning" of British Columbia's landscape. One of her most substantial canvases of the 1930s, "Big Raven," seen here, shows Carr at the point where she is beginning to depict nature as movement. The powerful image of the raven, often seen on village totem poles, stands alone in a natural setting that has become almost a sea of green.

As she grew older, Carr came to be viewed as a singular eccentric who continued to explore the forests of British Columbia in a camper nicknamed "The Elephant." But she had come to view art as a way of exploring and expressing spirituality. Though her canvases now hang in museums throughout Canada, Carr once observed: "Is one painting for the world? Or is one just trying to get nearer to God and express that of Him which is all things and fills all spaces?"

• 'Places of Their Own: Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo' is at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., till May 12. It will be at the Vancouver Art Gallery, in British Columbia, June 15 to Sept 15.

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