Emily Carr was a West Coast, Canadian artist who painted strong and powerful symbols of Native American artifacts found in northwest Canada. Carr was born in British Columbia, Canada and studied art in San Francisco and England. She returned to Vancouver in 1904 to explore Native American sites in British Columbia.
On a 1907 trip to Alaska, Carr was taken with the monumental carved totem poles of Northwest Coast Native Americans and resolved to document these “real art treasures of a passing race.” Over the next twenty-three years Carr visited more than thirty native village sites across British Columbia, making drawings and watercolors as studies for her oil paintings.
In 1910-1911, Carr was studying and painting in Paris where she was impressed by the Post-Impressionists and Fauvists, and she exhibited her work at the 1911 Salon d’Automne. In 1913, she had an unsuccessful exhibition of her Native American subjects.
Carr returned to Victoria and ran a boardinghouse. For fifteen years she painted very little. However, all this would change when she was invited in 1927 to participate in an exhibition of West Coast artists at Canada’s National Gallery. This was where she met the Group of Seven, a close-knit group of male artists. Their encouragement caused her to resume painting. She did her best work in the ensuing decade.
Carr developed a dramatic and powerfully sculptural style full of dark and brooding energy. In the early 1930s she turned her attention to the forest of the Pacific Northwest. The presence of trees was a central subject in her work, and she rallied against the unrestrained tree cutting in British Columbia. She portrayed the woods with strong, rich colors in a somewhat realistic style and painted from the perspective of being physically in the woods themselves.
In addition to working on canvas, Carr would use translucent oil paints on paper. This technique gave her works spontaneity and emotion as she was able to show a fleeting impression of glades, leaves, and trees in a forest. This technique of ‘calligraphy’ allowed her work to become even more uninhibited and expressive.
Her painting “Big Raven” came from seeing a carved raven raised on a pole, that had marked a mortuary house in an abandoned village. While the raven was “old and rotting,” in her painting he is strong and majestic. Her work – like that of the Group of Seven – can be thought of as an assertion of Canadian landscape, history, and national pride.
Many of her paintings are in the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, British Columbia. The Vancouver Art Gallery holds the finest collection of Emily Carr’s works in the world.