Writing and Painting under the Gaze: Emily Carr's Growing Pains

By Pett, Alexandra | West Virginia University Philological Papers, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Writing and Painting under the Gaze: Emily Carr's Growing Pains


Pett, Alexandra, West Virginia University Philological Papers


To begin to tell the stories of her life, a woman writer of the past has tended to look to male models first. Sidonie Smith's pioneering work on women's life writing gives us this summary:

Responding to the generic expectations of significance in life stories, she looks toward a narrative that will resonate with privileged cultural fictions of male selfhood. That glance is especially characteristic of the autobiographer who, having achieved a public reputation, casts her story in the culturally compelling plots, ideals of characterization, and speaking postures associated with male or "human selfhood." (1)

Still, it is often the creation of written text for public gaze that gives women social acceptance. In a book on mirror images in women's writing, Jenijoy La Belle tells us: "By writing texts and thereby in a sense becoming a text in the eyes of the world, women find one of the few alternatives to becoming mirror images which have been historically permitted." (2) To offset the deadening impact of the male gaze, women writers have relied on myths of various kinds. In Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton insists: "We have to make myths our lives; it is the only way to live them without despair." (3) This myth-making dimension of women's art and writing takes many forms. In the case of Emily Carr, Canadian painter and writer, personal myths designed to link Nature to self, as well as devotion to the past as embodied in aboriginal myths found on totem poles, provide the frames for artistic production. (4) Mythologizing without conscious awareness can, of course, lead to the assimilation of cultural imperatives such a s obsessive nationalism and false essentialism. For Carr, a tendency to speak ironically and with postmodern concern to show that selves are multiple and fluid, rather than fixed or rigid, has partially prevented the emergency of naive or sentimental writing.

As an outstanding woman of twentieth-century Canadian art and literature, she is the subject of many exhibits in art galleries and museums, yet viewers often see her paintings as derivative, as appropriating of First Nations culture, as phallic, as dark and gloomy, (11) her books of life writing also have been regarded as crude, inconsistent in the writing talents displayed. Linked to the isolation of the Canadian West, to the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island where the rainforests are dense even today, her painting and writing has been viewed as marginal; as in the case of many other women artists, she has been relegated to the archives of artistic institutions. When, for example, I took the elevator up to the fifth floor of Vancouver's Art Gallery I found rooms of samples of her art; I experienced a feeling of emptiness or absence. Comments from art historians and biographers were conflated with Carr's words so that it was difficult to identify the subject of the exhibit and the subjects of her art. My o wn gaze of Carr throughout that visit led me to reconsider her books as well as her paintings. In particular, I believe that her work does indeed reflect the urban environments of British Columbia in ways that critics have overlooked because her personality has become public property, in much the same way that Sylvia Plath and Anne Frank have been erased as individuals and enshrined as public icons.

Much recent commentary on the work of Emily Carr has focused on contexts. (5) Moreover, poetry and plays have honored her presence in Canadian history. (6) An essay about the ways in which playwrights have dramatized her life begins: "When the focus of a drama is the life of a woman artist ... expression of her own way of seeing is crucial since her aesthetic response to the world is a fundamental component of her character."' (7) As Doris Shadbolt, Carr's most loyal critic, has stated, "We touch her thought through her art, but if we are to appreciate its full dimension and the way in which her art and her spiritual convictions were melded, we should make some attempt to understand her ideas and how they developed.

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