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Canadian Connections

Exploring contemporary concepts using the TDSB collection

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Young Pines in Light

Emily Carr
c. 1935

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About the Artist & Artwork

Learn About Emily Carr

Early Life

Emily Carr spent most of her life in British Columbia. Her family led a conservative English life in Victoria. Carr was known throughout her life for her independent, rebellious and sometimes abrasive personality. In her biography, she recounted a time from childhood when she caused a scene at church by kicking at the minister and later playing in the mud in her Sunday best.

She displayed an interest and ability in drawing early in her life. After her father’s death when she was 17, Carr went against the wishes of her older sister and decided to study art in San Francisco.

After returning to Victoria, Carr went on a sketching trip to the B.C. forest, where she had her first immersive encounters with the First Nations people. Members of the Nootka peoples gave her the name Klee Wyck, meaning “Laughing One.”

Europe Bound

In order to raise money to study drawing and painting in Europe she gave art lessons in Victoria . While in England, her health deteriorated due to anaemia and she had to be hospitalized for 18 months. For companionship, the doctors allowed her to raise three baby birds by her bedside.

Once she recovered, Carr travelled to France to learn about “The New Art” movement sweeping Europe in 1910, characterized by bold colours and visible brush strokes of the post-impressionists and fauvists. Two of the pieces she painted in France, Brittany Landscape and Autumn in France were accepted by the Salon d’Automne in Paris and exhibited with works by Matisse, Vlaminck and others.

To view the work of Matisse and other French painters of the early 1900's visit the Barnes Foundation.

Return to Canada

Upon her return to BC in 1912, she organized an exhibition of her work created in Paris, which met with mixed reaction from critics. Shortly after, Carr set off on a solo expedition into the wilderness to capture her perception of B.C.’s First Nations culture and peoples through painting. She brought her painting supplies, blankets, and food. A logging boat took her to several Haida villages. In two months, she painted over 200 pieces.

In 1913, Carr submitted a proposal to the provincial government to display her paintings in the new wing of the Parliament Buildings. They rejected her proposal, as the paintings did not portray a photographic image of First Nations people, life, and culture. Undeterred, she mounted her own exhibition, which was met with criticism. Visitors expected a perfectly reproduced image, not paintings that attempted to express the spirit of the First Nations villages as seen by Carr. This time, the public’s criticism of her work had a negative influence on her. Carr would not paint for another 14 years.


From 1913 to 1927, Carr made ends meet by running a rooming house and breeding dogs. In 1927, Marius Barbeau, Director of the National Museum in Ottawa heard of Carr’s work from a Tsimshian interpreter and invited her to exhibit some of her paintings at the Exhibition of Northwest Coast Art in Ottawa. She met many artists and returned to Victoria renewed. At 57 years of age, Carr went into the B.C. forest again, this time going deeper into Skeena and Nass to paint the First Nations territories.

In the early 1930’s, influenced by The Group of Seven member Lawren Harris, Carr decided to turn her attention to the natural landscape, and leave First Nations motifs behind. In 1933, she purchased a modest trailer she called the Elephant. With it she took numerous sketching trips to the shores and wooded areas on Vancouver Island and created her signature landscapes.

By 1935 Carr had become one of Canada’s most celebrated artists. She also won the Governor Generals Award for writing in 1941. Her short stories, cartoons, and autobiography became almost as famous as her paintings. Carr enjoyed a few short years of public recognition, prior to her death in Victoria in 1945. After her death, Lawren Harris wanted to ensure her work was appropriately represented. He was instrumental in the selection of her work for The Vancouver Art Gallery and other large Canadian institutions.

Learn About the Artwork

In 1933, Carr set out on an expedition of the area surrounding Victoria in a trailer she called the Elephant. This painting was made on one of these trips. The light, feathery strokes may indicate her own personal style, and the freedom artists often experience while working quickly. Due to the painting’s small size and its free, expressive strokes it is likely that this piece was painted en plein-air, which means outdoors, in front of the subject of the painting.

These smaller, quick sketches were done in the hundreds and many were used to create larger, more detailed works back in the studio. Carr’s artistic process, painting outdoors and then moving indoors to refine her ideas was gaining popularity in the early 1900’s, once paint became available in tubes. The Group of Seven worked in a similar way, creating many small sketches using oil paint on wooden boards that would inform larger, more complete works in the studio.

View work from members of the group (Carmichael, Lismer, MacDonald, Jackson, and key influence, Thomson) in this collection.

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Artist’s Inspiration

Carr’s early work was inspired by the bold, bright paintings she saw in Europe during her studies, and the villages surrounding her Victoria home. After experimenting with bright and warm hues of red, orange and yellow, Carr said that she could not go back to the “old dead way of working after I have tasted the joys of the new.” This “new way” of seeing was inspired by what she saw in First Nations villages, and in the brightly coloured artwork of the post-impressionist and fauvist painters she saw in Paris. She later moved on from these bright colours to a more subdued pallet. Later in life Carr chose deep greens for her lush forest landscapes and bright blues to depict expansive skies.

Emily Carr found inspiration in the diverse landscapes of B.C. and in the First Nations villages, artwork, and people. She always felt like an outsider, separated from the rest of Victorian society but she identified with what she presumed to be the First Nations’ “free” way of life and harmonious relationship with nature. Carr enjoyed being outdoors, working on her sketches in the villages where she travelled.

“It must be understood that my collection of Indian pictures was not done in a comfortable studio. You have to go out and wrestle with the elements, with all your senses alert… You must learn to feel the pride of the Indian in his ancestors, and the pinch of the cold, raw damp of the West Coast, and the smell and flavour or the wood smoke, and the sting of it in your eyes…”

—Emily Carr, c. 1925

In 1928 Carr became friends with the Canadian painters who made up The Group of Seven. She was influenced by their work, and she equally influenced them. She developed a lifelong friendship with Lawren Harris, who wrote to her often and encouraged her work.

Later in life, Carr began painting the BC forests as she felt that painting totem poles and other Native art was copying the work of someone else and didn’t truly belong to her.

Although Carr was inspired by the outdoors, she was not considered an environmentalist. She worked in old growth forests, areas that had been logged, and second-generation industrial forests. She was aware of the power of nature and the cycles of natural growth. Despite industrial logging on Vancouver Island, she felt that nature would always sustain and renew itself. Today, we are more aware of the irreversibility of human intervention.

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Toronto Connection

The Artist’s AGO Connections

In 1928, Carr’s painting Indian Church was exhibited at The Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO). She travelled to Toronto for the exhibition, and it is here that she met the Group of Seven. Lawren Harris, a principle member of the group purchased Carr’s painting as he felt that it was one of her most successful works to date. Harris also invited her to the Group’s Toronto studio, introduced her to the other members, and showed her their work. The studio built by Harris still stands today near Toronto’s Rosedale subway station.

Carr’s painting, Indian Church is now part of the AGO’s permanent collection and is currently on display. Although the word “Indian” has been replaced by the terms Aboriginal or First Nations, the title of the painting remains as Carr intended.

A number of Carr’s paintings of forests, totems, and First Nations villages are part of the AGO’s permanent collection.

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Discuss & Create

Use these questions and activities to explore this work of art and respond creatively in your classroom!

Art and Nature

Q1. What feelings, ideas or memories does this painting inspire? What is it about the painting that makes you say that?

A1. Students should be able to connect the work to feelings, memories, and personal narratives. Ask students to connect their initial reaction to the formal elements of the painting.

Q2. How do you think Carr felt while creating this painting outdoors, en plein air, alone in the forest? What clues does she leave for us that tell us about her connection to the forests of B.C.?

A2. Carr was deeply connected to the forests of B.C. her pictures often capture the peace, beauty, and grandeur of the forest. The trees are usually large, painted from below to emphasize their size, and lit with their own glow or spiritual light. This characteristic of glowing light is also seen in Lawren Harris’ paintings.

Q3. Contemporary photographer TJ Watt travels to many of the forests where Carr once painted and photographs what they look like today. Some of the land is exactly as it was in Carr’s time. Carr painted natural forest landscapes (called “old-growth” forests) and industrial forest landscapes. Industrial landscapes that have been logged are called “clear cut” and those cleared and replanted are called “second-generation” forests. Compare TJ’s contemporary photographs of old-growth forests, clear-cut forests, and second-generation forests with Carr’s paintings.

What similarities and differences do you notice?
How does an old-growth forest differ from a second-generation forest?
Do you think either of these artists are environmental artists? Why or why not?

Students can also consider the materials and processes used to make the work before making a final decision or argument.

A3. Carr was inspired by the beauty of the forests, but was also aware of the growing need for timber in a booming logging industry. By today’s standards, Carr can be considered an advocate for nature, but not an environmentalist. On the other hand, TJ Watt brands himself as an environmental photographer, and his work is made with the specific purpose of drawing attention to the preservation of old-growth forests. Although the environment inspired both artists, each one takes a different position with respect to the role of their work.

Places of Inspiration

Q1. What outdoor spaces do you feel most comfortable in, and why? If you were going to go outside and paint en plein air just like Carr, what subject would you choose to paint? Would you paint a forest landscape, an urban neighbourhood, or some other location? Explain your choices to the class.

Select a space to sketch and paint outdoors. What is it about the space that makes you want to paint there? Visit this space and make some notes and preliminary drawings (Carr often used “gesture drawings” to capture the feel of a space quickly, and without too much detail). You might also want to explore the space using photography and sound in addition to your drawings.

Q2. Spending time observing and recording the characteristics of a space can lead to new discoveries. What did you notice about the space as you worked on your plein air drawing or painting?

With a partner, present your sketches, writing, photographs and soundscapes. Describe how your work evolved as you spent time in the space, and the new things you noticed. Discuss how these preliminary sketches can be used as inspiration for a larger finished piece.

After your discussion create some coloured sketches of where you can take these ideas. Using the drawings, photographs, audio recordings and your own writing as a starting point. Create a new piece of artwork back in the studio using the media of your choice.

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