December 1, 2010

Growing Pains: An Autobiography

What I knew about Emily Carr up to now was what I learned from reading The Book of Small several years ago. That book was a reminiscence about her childhood in Victoria. This one portrays her life as an artist, beginning with her many years of training in San Francisco, London and Paris.

Her parents died when she was young and she was raised by an unsympathetic older sister, and given the means to study by the administrator of her parents' estate. These were years of struggle for her, both personally and artistically - she battled loneliness, poor accommodations and lessons that were too often indoors when she longed to be out. Still she felt it a huge privilege to be studying art and worked so hard that her health was broken and she was on the verge of death more than once.

I had vaguely thought she must have been a prim Victorian matron who happened to begin to paint. She was anything but. Rebellious from childhood, she carried that alternative spirit with her to her studies and was ferociously committed to her work. She got almost no support for her art in BC until much later in her career. In fact, every time she showed any of her work at home, she was mocked for the unique post-impressionist style she'd developed. She tried to teach art, but found it hard to make a living, and eventually she turned to taking in boarders and raising dogs.

A series of fortuitous events brought her to the attention of the Group of Seven, especially of Lawren Harris, who took her under his wing, displayed her work in the East, renewed her enthusiasm for painting and encouraged her to write when she could no longer paint.

I found this book much more difficult to read than The Book of Small, although I was fascinated by it and the subject matter was much more interesting to me. Small is lyrical; this book is much rawer, reflecting the extreme eccentricity and often irritation and anger of its author.

I bought Growing Pains in Victoria a few weeks ago, and while driving near Beacon Hill, where the Carrs lived, saw a sign that said "Emily Carr House." But it was before I'd read the book, and we were tired, so we didn't go, even though we must have been only a block or two away. Now I want badly to see it. I would also like to read Carr's other book, called Klee Wyck, based on her relationship with the coastal aboriginal people.


  1. Excellent commentary on this book, well said. You must read Klee Wyck too, it's wonderful and has a different flavour again. Interesting how both Carr and Van Gogh both came to the verge of death on more than one occasion on account of their artistic passion.

  2. Yes! After seeing the Van Gogh movie at the Imax, I've been wanting to post about that wonderful experience. They were similar in their intensity and love for landscape although the landscapes they worked with were so different. Thanks for reading my blog!