In likely the early summer of 1928, at the age of 56, an intrepid Emily Carr found someone to boat her into the remote Nass Valley in northwestern British Columbia, home to the Nisga'a Nation. Today, stumbling along the lava beds here, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and breathing the honey air, it's not difficult to see why an artist would want to be here, to capture this.
But Ms. Carr had something else in mind: She was looking for totem poles to sketch and paint. While staying in the Nass, also known as Lisims, she made sketches and watercolours. When she boated back out along the river probably about ten days after she arrived, the works she made here left with her.
Now, for the first time, they are back in the place where they were conceived.
The exhibition "Emily Carr's Return to Ank'idaa" opened just over a week ago at the Nisga'a Museum, a striking museum in remote Laxgalts'ap, also known by its English name of Greenville. A wall of glass emerging dramatically from a bed of rock near the mouth of the Nass River, the museum is a few hundred metres from where Ms. Carr would have stayed during that trip, in an abandoned schoolteacher's home. The exhibition may help uncover new information about Ms. Carr's visit, and the totem poles she painted.
It's a tiny show – four works on paper and one of the canvasses that came out of the visit (along with a few related artifacts) – but it is a monumental return.
Far more comprehensive Carr shows have been mounted in much larger galleries – and there's the upcoming Carr exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London later this year – but there's a lot to be said for seeing the work in the context in which it was created.
"When you look at [her] First Nations work … there is this mythology that surrounds that," says Darrin Martens, director of the Nisga'a Museum, which is about a two-hour drive north from Terrace, B.C. "But then bringing it here, all that disappears, because this is the living culture."
Her visit to the Nass was part of an important time for Ms. Carr's practice. She was exploring First Nations culture with vigour (and stamina – this was part of a six-week sketching tour of the northwest coast), and this was a prolific period.
She documented her trip to the Nass in Greenville, one of the stories in her Governor-General's Award-winning memoir Klee Wyck.
Finding no totem poles in the relatively new, engineered community of Greenville/Laxgalts'ap, Ms. Carr ventured, again by boat, to the old villages of Git'tix and Ank'idaa (she calls them Gittex and Angedar in the story). "Suddenly we came out onto its turbulent waters and shot across them: and there, tipping drunkenly over the top of dense growth, were the totem poles of Gittex," she wrote. "They looked like mere sticks in the vast sea of green that had swallowed the old village."
The five works in the show, on loan from the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Royal BC Museum, all depict totem poles. They are dynamic, airy, vigorous – the lush greenery coming alive in contrast to the stately, abandoned poles.
In Ankeda, The Pole of Chief George Kindealda (1928), pretty flowers bloom next to the imposing face on the pole.
The show's centrepiece installation features the oil on canvas Forsaken (1937); the watercolour and graphite on paper Nass River Pole, B.C. (1928) from which it was developed; and two historical photographs of the pole in the paintings. The viewer sees how Ms. Carr took creative licence with the pole – she was an artist; not simply a documentarian. (She also writes about this pole in Greenville, where she describes "a wooden bear on top of such a high pole he was able still to look over the top of the woods.")
It's fascinating to hear the local scuttlebutt surrounding Ms. Carr's famous visit. The elders still speak about what they heard from their parents, grandparents or other relatives who remember her visit – and recall a woman who was demanding and "wasn't very nice," according to Mr. Martens. This came up in the planning of this exhibition.
"Someone said, 'Should we actually have her work up here … given how badly she treated us?'" Mr. Martens says.
(One elder speaking in nearby Gitwinksihlkw echoed these sentiments to The Globe, but asked not to be quoted, saying Ms. Carr is not around to defend herself.) During the exhibition, which runs until late August, Mr. Martens is hoping to tease out these stories – and more information.
It is common for materials to be written to complement an art exhibition, such as a catalogue to be published when the show opens. But Mr. Martens is holding off on this deliberately. He believes the exhibition will trigger memories, which will contribute not just to the enhanced brochure he plans to write, but to the overall Emily Carr scholarship.
"It's going to be quite fascinating to see what elders come forward and what comes out of that experience," says Mr. Martens, also hoping new intelligence about the poles themselves surface as a result. "These are going to be visual clues for them."
Not all of the stories that emerge may be positive, but as Mr. Martens points out, Ms. Carr's attitudes and behaviour need to be viewed through the lens of historical context. She was a product of her times.
In the story Greenville, she certainly demonstrates an interest in the culture, and a deep passion for its totem poles.
"Now there was no one to listen to their talk any more," she wrote about the poles, abandoned when the Nisga'a departed for the new villages. "By and by they would rot and topple to the earth, unless white men came and carried them away to museums. There they would be labelled as exhibits, dumb before the crowds who gaped and laughed and said, "This is the distorted foolishness of an uncivilized people." And the poor poles could not talk because the white man did not understand their language."
Emily Carr's Return to Ank'idaa is at the Nisga'a Museum until Aug. 31.