By O. Alan Weltzien
I have just been reading the four (short) nonfiction books written back in the early 1940s by the great British Columbian painter Emily Carr. I have long wanted to read the first and shortest of those, Klee-Wyck. For anyone interested in getting the feel of temperate zone rainforest; of Haida Indians, totem poles, and the British Columbian coast and Queen Charlotte Islands, this little book is indispensable. Many years ago I toured Carr’s home in Victoria, B.C., and I’ve never forgotten the impression her canvasses left on me. Carr is a staggering painter, almost like a rainforest Georgia O’Keefe, and her evocations of forests and tribal peoples are enduring and remarkable. Carr often writes as she paints: impressionistically. She sketches quickly and surely, and her metaphors often spring off the page as she forever charges with life the scene she’s evoking. The brooding presence of totem poles aged by chronic rain clings to the reader as it did to the writer.
The other three volumes – The Book of Small, The House of All Sorts, and Growing Pains – all trace her autobiography. “Small” was her self-chosen nickname in her large family, and this volume chronicles her childhood. Carr ran a boarding house for twenty-two years, and the ever-changing motley crew in her rooms form the primary attention of the third volume — along with her kennel of dogs. The final, longest volume traces her difficult adolescence and adulthood, trying to find her own place in the provincial art scene of British Columbia. It wasn’t until middle age that Carr finally achieved a large reputation. She was famously independent and eccentric, often seen on the streets of her native city with dogs and pet monkey, if not other pets, in two. In Carr’s time, it was a difficult as any time for a painter who happened to be a woman, finding some reputation and acclaim. Carr famously beat the odds.
O. Alan Weltzien is an English professor at the University of Montana Western and an authority on Montana literature. He is the author of the memoir A Father and an Island: Reflections on Loss (2008, Lewis-Clark Press) and a forthcoming book of poems, To Kilimanjaro and Back (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2011).
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