Emily Carr was getting on in years, and needed to make decisions about where her best paintings would wind up. As she planned her estate, she and Group of Seven member Lawren Harris - a friend and mentor - selected works for what would come to be known as the Emily Carr Trust. But the paintings, she knew, would not wind up in Victoria, her hometown, where she felt they belonged. In 1945, the year she died at age 73, there was still no art gallery in Victoria, and this frustrated Carr to no end.
"It is called the Emily Carr Trust and should have come to Victoria, only Victoria is too hopeless," she wrote in a letter about the city where she spent most of her life. "She could never have bothered to arrange or house, all her top men are ossified."
The works went to the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Shortly after Carr died, attempts were made to correct the glaring omission in the British Columbia capital's cultural landscape. Buoyed by Carr's wishes, a group of friends, colleagues and admirers opened an art gallery - in a car dealership. The Little Centre, as it was known, ultimately became the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV), which finally found a permanent home in 1951. The Little Centre's first exhibition featured Carr's work, but it wasn't until 1964 that the gallery was able to acquire a Carr for its permanent collection.
In the last decade, the AGGV has given Carr short shrift. The 40 or so Carr works in its collection were hung salon-style in a small back gallery. "I just shoehorned everything I could into there," says AGGV senior curator Mary Jo Hughes. "It was overwhelming. You couldn't really appreciate [the works]for themselves."
People were disappointed; Carr is by far the most sought-after artist at AGGV. Sixty per cent of visitors, Hughes estimates, specifically ask to see her work.
"This is [Carr's]hometown, and they expect to see her work here, like we go to Holland and we expect to see van Gogh's work," says Hughes. "We decided, if this is the case, why are we hiding her in the broom closet?"
This week, the gallery bowed to the people, opening a new semi-permanent exhibition chronicling Carr's life and work. Emily Carr: On the Edge of Nowhere finally gives the celebrated artist her due in her hometown.
"Now we feel like we've given her some breathing space," says Hughes, who curated the exhibition. At 1,500 square feet, the exhibition space is almost three times the size of Carr's previous home at the gallery.
The show will run for three years (with some alterations involving some borrowed works), with temporary exhibitions in the space next door serving as a contemporary counterpoint. (Kent Monkman's The Triumph of Mischief is installed there now.)
The show is presented, for the most part, in chronological order, beginning with a short look at Carr's life through photographs and paintings, including a depiction of her beloved monkey, Woo. A decision was made to not linger long here, for fear of trivializing Carr's work by focusing too much on her eccentricities.
"This exhibition is ... not the kind of frivolous take that sometimes people tend to [adopt]with exhibitions ... of that kind of quirky old lady with the monkey on her shoulder," says Jon Tupper, the AGGV's director. "It's kind of a more thoughtful exhibition. You're giving people what they've asked for, what they want to see, but you're giving it to them in a way that's a little more scholarly than what they have come to expect with the treatment of Emily Carr."
On the Edge of Nowhere tracks Carr's progress as an artist, beginning with early works obviously influenced by her conservative art training. These include Wild Lilies, a rarely exhibited oil painting dating back to 1892, believed to have been created by Carr when she was a student in San Francisco - and now belonging to the Sisters of Saint Ann. Carr donated it to the religious order after its members cared for her sister Elizabeth (Lizzie), who was dying of breast cancer. It's said to have been Lizzie's favourite painting, but it offers little hint of the iconic Carr to come - other than the obvious skill.
Carr's work changed dramatically with her exposure to native people's villages, which began with a trip to Ucluelet on the rugged western edge of Vancouver Island in 1899 but really took hold in 1907 with a pivotal trip to Alaska by steamship. The totem poles she painted later transformed with the influence of the Post-Impressionists she encountered in France. Ultimately she found her own distinctive artistic voice in the bold landscapes that presented Vancouver Island to the world.
Some of the most impressive works in this show have been borrowed from other institutions, including Totem and Forest and the magnificent Vanquished - both on loan from the Vancouver Art Gallery (which has more than 200 Carr works in its permanent collection, compared with the AGGV's 42). But Carr's love affair with the landscape (if not the cultural infrastructure) of Victoria and Vancouver Island is evident throughout, as she depicts landscapes in some cases mere blocks from the gallery, such as Beacon Hill Park.
Tupper says it's important for people to access these works in Victoria, so close to the land they portray. "If you see Emily Carr's paintings in, say, Halifax, you wonder about the colours because those aren't the colours you're going to see in the forests of Nova Scotia. Those are the colours you're going to see in the forests of Vancouver Island - very specific, very local - the gentle, rolling hills, the kind of slightly dangerous forests that have that darkness in the centre that she uses in her paintings."
The show's title comes from a famous quip of Carr's, one often viewed as self-deprecating. In fact, Hughes points out, it was the National Gallery of Canada Carr was putting down, not herself. Upset that the gallery was acquiring her older, more traditional, paintings, she wrote: "If the work of an isolated little old woman on the edge of nowhere is too modern for the Canadian National Gallery, it seems it cannot be a very progressive institution."
The show ends with works created late in Carr's life, including the magnificent Odds and Ends, her depiction of a clear-cut in the forest, which is often interpreted with a pro-environmental message.
"She has a long, prestigious career," says Hughes, who tends to speak of Carr in the present tense, "but really it was in her 60s, at a time when a lot of us are winding down, that she's really moving forward. She's somebody who's vibrant and still so alive with her artwork."
Carr continued to paint as long as she could - even after suffering heart attacks and strokes. Unwell, she brought a typewriter into bed so she could continue to write. She was turning 70 when she published her first book. Klee Wyck won a Governor-General's Award. She wrote four more.
"I don't want to trickle out," she wrote, as she approached her 65th birthday. "I want to pour till the pail is empty, the last bit going out in a gush, not drops."
Emily Carr: On the Edge of Nowhere is at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria for the next three years (aggv.bc.ca).