Some of us are world-class artists; some of us, knowing that we never will reach that level of breathtaking skill, seek instead to become muse and confidante to those whose talents eclipse our own. Consider Ira Dilworth. He was an accomplished man – a popular teacher, a CBC administrator, a collector of poetry, an archivist, a music lover and choir conductor. There is no doubt that he made a difference.
Yet Dilworth died in 1962, and the memory of his good works is already fading.
But Emily Carr is remembered. And that’s thanks partly to Dilworth. He chose to devote time to uplifting another’s career and reputation.
There are Carr’s stunning paintings of British Columbia, of course. Just this week, an art collector announced that he spent some $3 million on her 1928 oil on canvas, The Crazy Stair (The Crooked Staircase). It’s been described as “a striking image of a totem rising out of the forest, with a canoe sitting on a beach at the bottom of a crooked staircase.”
But Carr was also a writer. There were diaries and notebooks, and reams of letters to Dilworth.
“Despite their 20-year-age difference–or perhaps because of it ‑‑ they were able sign their many letters to one another with ‘love’,” notes the British Columbia website, ABC Bookworld. “She confessed some of her most private feelings to him and sometimes playfully referred to him as ‘My Beloved Guardian’. As Kate Braid has noted in her short but useful biography of Carr, she categorized her letters to him as N.N.T.A. (Not Necessary To Answer), R.A.L. (Read At Leisure), Red Hot Specials, Week Enders and Special Deliveries. In turn, she kept a bag of his letters by her bed to cheer her up.”
And Dilworth helped push Carr’s prose into the realm of poetry. He became her editor, and upon her death in 1945, her literary executor, ensuring that her work remained front and centre.
Dilworth discovered Carr upon publication of her first book, Klee Wyck, in 1941, which instantly won the Governor-General’s Award for literature (The title is the nickname given to her when she arrives, at 15, in the BC community of Ucluelet, and translates as “laughing one”.)
Klee Wyck is a stunning collection of short portraits of people and places – remote villages, culture clashes, friendships. They are said to be largely autobiographical.
“Then Mrs. Wynook told how the old Indians thought the spirit of a person got caught in a picture of him, trapped there so that, after the person died, it had to stay in the picture.
“’Tell her that I will not make any more pictures of the old people,’ I said. It must have hurt the Indians dreadfully to have the things they had always believed trampled on and torn from their hugging. Down deep we all hug something.”
There is city life, also: “Every year Sophie had a new baby. Almost every year she buried one. Her little graves were dotted all over the cemetery. I never knew more than three of her 21 children to be alive at one time. By the time she was in her early fifties every child was dead and Sophie had cried her eyes dry. Then she took to drink.”
The Indian children are born skinny and sickly; the children of whites are fat and grow like weeds.
The art and writings of Carr, a white woman born in Victoria, are not without controversy.
One critic wrote: “Carr dramatized First Nations meanings in paintings like Zunoqua Of The Cat Village and The Crying Totem, in which she altered the original meanings of the totem poles. Although her fascination with indigenous cultures glows through the paint in Carr’s work, her understanding of those cultures was tainted by her naíveté and limited formal education.” Artist Shirley Bear called her a racist. Professor Marcia Crosby, a liar. Curator Peter Macnair sees her as a cultural tourist. She’s been accused of portraying what was a vibrant Native culture as dying, and thereby providing a pretext for the ugliest colonialism.
Could Carr have had that much power?
And none of this changes the fact that her writing is beautiful, and her paintings stunning. No one had ever painted like her before.
Dilworth’s efforts on his friend’s behalf helped turn Carr into a Canadian icon. In 1951, while living in Knowlton, he recalled their friendship and her work: “Why did she turn to writing? Sometimes, undoubtedly, merely for comfort in her loneliness, sometimes quite consciously to relive experiences of the past….”
Carr’s life was a difficult one. She was bullied, ridiculed, disliked. She lived with a menagerie of animals, including the famous monkey, Woo, shuttled about in a baby carriage (at times the little one could be found “darting under the hedge to catch succulent earwigs which she loved to crunch”).
Carr’s four most important books, Klee Wyck, The Book Of Small, The House Of All Sorts, and Growing Pains, located on the fiction shelves, are published all together in The Emily Carr Collection: Four Complete And Unabridged Canadian Classics (2002).
After reading through these works – each is about 100 pages, and so filled with imagery you need to take time to truly appreciate the writing – I went to the Lennoxville Library’s new rejigged website (at http://www.bibliolennoxvillelibrary.ca/). Our book catalogue is now connected to those of other library systems! And so, wanting to read more Carr and more about her, I popped her name into the blank space.
The Lennoxville Library has two other Carr books on the shelves: Opposite Contraries: The Unknown Journals Of Emily Carr And Other Writings, and Anne Newlands’ 1996 Emily Carr: An Introduction To Her Life And Art.
Looking for still more? Turns out the Sawyerville and Stanstead Haskell libraries have books about Carr, as well. I’m going to request an interlibrary loan.
For a bookworm, this is the good life.
– Eleanor Brown, June 20, 2014