Image, Text, and Spirit: Kate Braid and the Paintings of Emily Carr

Article excerpt

Within this analysis of Kate Braid's poetic discourse as a response to Emily Carr's paintings in the text To This Cedar Fountain, this essay demonstrates how painter and poet subvert the matter/spirit binary to articulate a fundamental connection among spirituality, creativity, and the material conditions of women's lives.

... the sould of painting [is] poetry...

Samuel Richardson, Clarissa

**********

Like that of Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, Emily Carr's personal mythology was deeply rooted in the spiritual (Udall 235). Carr's biographers, art historians, and scholars, such as Paula Blanchard, Doris Shadbolt, Sharon Rohlfsen Udall, and Stephanie Kirkwood Walker, agree that Carr's friendship with Lawren Harris, who was a practising theosophist as well as an artist, signalled a major transformation in her artistic practice. Harris believed that artistic work was a sacramental act, one that made the spirit in the universe visible (Blanchard 178). Carr's friendship with Harris was characterized by discussions about the sacred in art; indeed it was Harris who encouraged Carr to immerse herself in the natural world of British Columbia, believing as he did that "the whole visible universe was the living body of an inexpressibly beautiful and benevolent spiritual force" (172). In 1930, Carr was deeply moved when she saw the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the abstract art pioneer who had publishe d a text in 1928 that was widely read in avant-garde circles (218-19). Concerning the Spiritual in Art argues that abstract art should be understood as "an attempt to discover a reality behind surface appearance" (or matter) and that the arts are leading the way to a spiritual revolution in the twentieth century (Macleod 205). Linking notions of the self to "wonders in a hidden realm" was the aim of many modernists who turned away from the constraints of Christian thought to embrace primitivism, the unconscious and the occult (Walker 113). The avant-garde placed spirit at the heart of creativity, a positioning that is central to understanding Carr's writing and painting. The purpose of her practice was to "rise above the external and temporary to the real of the eternal reality, to express the 'I am,' or God, in all life, in all growth, for there is nothing but God" (Carr 32).

In To This Cedar Fountain, published in 1995, Kate Braid, a Vancouver poet, feminist, academic, and carpenter, engages unflinchingly with the spiritual dimension in Carr's paintings. Her collection of thirty-six poems responds to Carr's modernist achievement with earthy, concrete images that offer readers a visceral, experiential connection to Carr's spiritually rich oeuvre. Braid joins a long (predominantly male) tradition of poets whose encounters with paintings inspire and inform their work. The tradition, begun in modern times with Baudelaire, includes the contemporary Irish poet Paul Durcan, whose presence in the gallery, like Braid's, animates the paintings they love and admire. Braid moves her readers around art galleries and the vast forests of British Columbia where an intangible power awaits, such as a "patch on heaven" ("Totem By The Ghost Rock," Cedar 11) or "a hallelujah chorus of greens" ("Rushing Undergrowth" 51). In her poems, Braid subverts the dualistic categories of matter and spirit to emb race Simone de Beauvoir's definition of women's metaphysical wisdom as a double allegiance to both the carnal and poetic, and a combination of the immanent and transcendent (Thomas). Braid's poetic approach complements existing Carr scholarship that analyzes the artist's desire to paint a God that she experienced as "a great breathing among the trees" (Blanchard 105), an image that invokes the origin of spirit in the Latin word spiritus 'breath' (Ayto 494). Braid responds to Carr's instinctive animism with a poet's (in) sight into what Doris Shadbolt calls Carr's "primal spirit affinity with all the forms of creation" (142). …