For the last two or three years Bonnie has been on an Emily Carr kick. She has read everything she has written, read every book about her, and studied all of her paintings–she even visited her home in Victoria. Bonnie has been inspired by her, almost as if she has found a kindred spirit, a patron saint. I’ve followed along, reading a bit over her shoulder. Emily’s painting doesn’t do much for me, and I found her writing not very engaging. However, as a person, I am very impressed by Emily.
Emily was Emily. That, for any human being, is a great achievement. If you only read books about Emily, you get the idea that she was a feminist before her time, but Emily wasn’t any kind of an -ist, she was Emily. In fact, I wouldn’t even say that Emily was an art-ist, except that Emily had a creative spirit that expressed itself in painting, drawing, writing, pottery and handicrafts. She was not being an artist, she was being herself. Emily was somewhat rebellious as a teenager, smoking and riding horses–not sidesaddle. Like most of us, finding herself required a little experimenting with what she was not. She was not a Victorian lady. Emily was Emily.
If you really want to get to know Emily–instead of the -ist of a biographer’s imagination–you have to read her works. You have to read Emily on Emily. One of the aspects of Emily that doesn’t make it through the filter of her biographers is her profound Christian faith. Almost all of the biographers briefly mention that Emily was a “spiritual” person, and biographers often mention her rejection of churchy hypocrisy. But no one writes about her deep love of Christ, of God in Christ Jesus. Towards the end of her life, this comes out in her writing. But knowing about her Christian faith, one begins to see it in all of her life, in her love for the poor and rejected native peoples, in her strong reaction against snobby self-righteousness, in finding life in native art and in all nature, and in her courage to be herself.
Two relationships in Emily’s life particularly speak to me of her courage as a Christian, as a human being. The first is her polite refusal to become part of the circle of the Group of Seven painters. Emily was happy both to be recognized by them and to learn from them, but in the end she chose not to associate closely with them because she could not accept their Christless Transcendentalism. For her, there is no knowledge of God except in Christ. You don’t hear about that in the biographies. However, she is quite clear about her reasons in her journal and personal letters. As much as Emily wanted her work to be appreciated (and she did, suffering depression, and going long periods without painting because no one seemed to appreciate her work), she would not compromise her firmly held simple Christian faith for the trendy Transcendentalism of the age. Not even for notoriety.
The other relationship that speaks volumes of Emily Carr as a Christian is her relationship with Sophie Frank. Sophie was a native woman who bore fifteen children, all of whom died in early childhood. With Emily’s friendship and patronage (and Emily was quite poor herself), Sophie wove and sold baskets night and day to save enough money to buy simple tombstones for her fifteen children. Emily did not have many long-term friendships. She was quite blunt in her criticism of Victorian etiquette and had no time for snobbery of any kind. She used to keep the chairs in her studio on ropes attached to pulleys on the ceiling. She only let them down when she had visitors whom she wanted to talk to. She seldom let them down. However, when Sophie came to her door selling baskets, Emily recognized in her a real human being. Their friendship lasted thirty years.