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Redeeming Emily Carr

When we moved to Vancouver from Montreal nearly 10 years ago, the family and I set about acquainting ourselves with all things Vancouver and West Coast-ish, the better to shed our Montreal personas and adopt the ways and trappings of local Vancouverites. With newly acquired Nalgene water bottles in our hands, MEC backpacks on our backs, and Lululemon yoga pants on our tushes (well, not mine, and Karen wears skirts, but you get the picture), we set out to learn all about our new surroundings. You know, Granville Island, Yaletown, Stanley Park, the Aquarium, and so on. And of course, the Vancouver Art Gallery, which is where we got to appreciate West Coast art and take in some fantastic anti-Israel protests at the same time (how’s that for multitasking?). It was there where I discovered the art and influence of the famous Canadian artist Emily Carr.

emily-carr1The Vancouver Art Gallery is home to the largest collection of Emily Carr works in the world. In learning about her and her art, we discovered just how significant her art was in British Columbia, how influential she became in Canada, and how, in her images of the coastal forest landscape, Carr “exulted in the symphonies of greens and browns found in the natural world.” Now, what I am about to write betrays my artistic ignorance, but the truth is that not only was I uninspired by her art, I had an emotional reaction to it, and not the good kind – I left the gallery feeling down.  Where others saw “a synthesis of the spiritual and natural” in her work I saw tree moss and gloomy, oppressive landscapes.

I’ve always tried to understand why I felt that way. Maybe it was the Montrealer in me, used to oil paintings of leaf-strewn Mile End streets or the snowy clear blue sky world of Sheldon Cohen’s art from Roch Carrier’s book The Hockey Sweater, but I found Carr’s work unhappy and depressing.  Having those feelings in turn also made me feel somewhat politically incorrect, so pervasive was Carr’s work in this most politically correct of provinces.

Fast forward ten-years later to the present, and all I can say is: Thank God for children, and their infinite capacity to see the good in things. This week, students in grade 3 displayed their artwork in the halls, as part of their work in Fine Arts. Morah Batsheva had been working with her students on creating images based on Emily Carr’s work. When I went to go and see their work, I literally stopped in my tracks – what the students had produced was alive, it was bright, and it was vibrant. It was so unlike how I saw Emily Carr’s paintings that first time at the gallery. Their coastal forest landscapes were filled with light, the sun shone, totem poles grinned big toothy grins, and the animals in the forests were talking to each other and smiling. It was as if the Garden of Eden mixed with Haida Gwaii, and the students showed that it is essentially one and the same. Their ability to see the good and the pure and show it in their artwork really inspired me, and that they could instinctively see the inner light in Carr’s work made me wish I could do the same.

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And so, I’m giving Emily Carr another shot.  By all accounts a difficult character with a hard life, Emily Carr brought beauty into the world and shared her vision of that with others, when many others in similar circumstances might not.  If the kids can see the beauty in her work, then I am certainly going to try.  And, like Carr, who found the spiritual in the natural world, there are lessons there for all of us, summed up in the lyrics of what is quintessentially the most children of Jewish children’s songs:

Hashem is here, Hashem is there
Hashem is truly everywhere
Hashem is here, Hashem is there
Hashem is truly everywhere

Up, up, down, down
Right, left, and all around
Here, there, and everywhere
That’s where he can be found

Up, up, down, down
Right, left, and all around
Here, there, and everywhere
That’s where he can be found

Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach!

 

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