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Books and Beyond

“Growing Pains” is an autobiography written by Emily Carr, a Canadian artist, first published in 1946 by Oxford University Press. She died in 1945 at the age of 74. Her editor was Ira Dilworth, and at the beginning of the autobiography he writes a wonderful foreword, which ends with “Life will not stand still. So fare forward, dear soul” (p. 15).

You may be asking yourself, why did Jody choose an author who is not well-known to most people?

Many years ago, in the 1990s when I was working full time, I read several books by Emily Carr, and I’ve been wondering, how would I respond to her now, 30 years later? At that time, I bought a box of greeting cards that had her artwork featured on them. I saved her books, and I still have the box (with no cards left).

If I were giving a short description of her life as it is portrayed in this book, I would say Emily had a life of ups and downs. As a young woman she studied art in London and France. She was in London for five years, and although she made some friends and had some good responses from her instructors, she was very negative about London as a place. There are too many people, and they have strict rules for behavior and clothes that seemed unnatural to her. “Oh, I wanted my West! I wasn’t a London lady! (p. 158).

Another reality of her life in London (she studied also in other places in England) was her tendency to be ill. Once she fell down stairs, and after surgery on her foot had trouble walking for a time. Then for a year and a half, she had to suspend her art interest and be treated for a serious illness in a sanatorium.

The West she wanted was western Canada — Victoria, British Columbia, where she grew up and where she was happiest. At the place where she lived with her sisters much of the time, she had made her studio on the top floor of the barn. It was just like she wanted it. Her parents died when she was fairly young, and her older sisters always supported her, even though they knew she was not just like them.

All through my copy of “Growing Pains” I have underlined many sentences where she expresses her love of nature — trees and forests, hills, birds, land animals, and the quietness (except for the sounds of the animals.) Here is one way she makes the comparison with London: “The woods standing, standing, holding the cool sap of vegetation were healing, restful after seeing the boil of humanity” (p. 249).

For 15 years when she returned from France, she did not paint. To raise funds, she had her house built with three apartments included. She did rent the apartments and cooked for the women who stayed there.

Then she opens a studio. She doesn’t have many students, and needs to make money somehow. Next she makes pots and sells them, and raises sheepdogs and sells them.

It was when she was older that her art became well-known. That is because she became friends with a group of Canadian artists who knew how talented she was: the Group of Seven.

One day she gets a call from an artist in Ottawa requesting that she submit paintings for an exhibit that is coming up titled “Indian Art,” Up to this point Emily has felt her talents to come from being in Indian Villages and learning about this way of life. The painting of the church on my box of greeting cards was called Indian Church.

Submitting to this art exhibit inspires her. When she travels east to Ottawa, she stops in Toronto to meet Lauren Harris. He is an artist in the Group of Seven. He inspires Emily with his art and with his acceptance and praise of her paintings, and he tells her to focus on the nature she sees as Emily Carr. He feels she doesn’t need to consider Indian art is her specialty.

When she returns to Victoria, British Columbia, she begins painting again and focuses on nature. She buys an old building in the woods, and for a few years she lives there with her dogs and monkey, and she paints. When I read the pages that tell about this, my heart connects with 30 years ago when I first read her books. I feel like she is a friend.

In my imagination, when Emily is visiting here, she would be in one of the run-down buildings on our place in the country with her animals and painting tools. Of course, we would have redone the old barn so that it is suitable for her.

I do think I appreciate her writing now even more than I did 30 years ago, and I plan now and then to reread her other books. I understand her better. Living with being different from most people around her (and some of them critical of what she was like), she knew she was happy in the forest, with trees and flowers, birds and coyotes accepting her.

Her artist friends give her a 70th birthday party, where they give her flowers and praise. The Rev. Laundy begins with an invocation, and Emily writes “I was glad Mrs. Young invited God to my party” (p. 328).

Many books by her and about her are available on MnLINK Gateway.

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