Finding Emily

July 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

A few months ago we visited the Royal BC Archives as part of the Museum Artist Residency. After poking around the extensive library of original records, marvelling at the hand bound covers of very old books, and looking through drawers of beautifully hand written documents from over 100 years ago (the calligraphy!), we ended up in this room in the basement full of art.

A random collection of framed works were mounted on rows of metal grills. Ann, our guide, pulled one out and there were these watercolours and sketches of trees and totem poles. “Are these Emily Carr?” Yes they were. I can’t remember who said it, but something to the effect of “they aren’t her best pieces,” meaning that’s why they are just sitting in that room and not up in a gallery somewhere. I took a closer look.

When someone tells me I should care about something I usually don’t. And that’s how I felt about Emily Carr. I know, I know. But when we moved to the west coast, and to Victoria, she was just so ubiquitous. It felt touristy. Her imagery is everywhere, she is the city’s claim to fame. To be honest my eyes would just glaze over. But standing in that basement looking at Emily Carr’s “not so great” work under fluorescent lights? That’s where everything changed.

The pieces were random, imperfect, vibrant, sketchy, alive. And that’s when it hit me. She was real. She was there. She went to that village, she sat right there under the fucking totem pole and she drew it. Alone in the early days of colonial British Columbia. Often being boated into remote communities by locals or hitching a ride on a horse and cart. Exploring and drawing in all types of weather. Inspired by the art and traditions of the First Nations people who informed her later interpretations of the land she loved so much. Born into an era and a part of the world that was less than supportive, she carved a path that was uniquely her own and continued to do so until the day she died.

(Here are a couple quick photos of the pieces that blew my mind down there – apologies for the bad quality)


The other day I stopped by the Ross Bay Cemetery
on my way to the museum. This is where Emily Carr is buried, and this was the day I decided to finally find her grave. I had tried before without success (surprising because the place isn’t very big) so I looked it up online. There was a map and a photo of a tiny granite marker placed on what was until the 1960s an unmarked grave. It looked pretty boring.

I walked up and down the area where I thought it should be, and again found nothing. Running out of time I eventually gave up and decided to continue on my way. I headed towards a taped off area where a massive branch had fallen off a pine tree and was being sawed into pieces. A worker walked over and we chatted about branches falling off of trees, and how it’s lucky no one was sitting underneath (insert grave joke here). “Another huge branch fell over by Emily Carr,” he said, pointing towards the opposite end of the yard. “Oh, and where might her grave be?” I asked, casually. Turns out I had the map upside down.

Just underneath another huge beautiful pine tree on the other end of the cemetery is a patch of warm dry grass, and there lies Emily’s grave. I was expecting the sad, lonely little marker I saw in the photo but what I found was neither. The marker is there, but all around it is the evidence of many visitors. Fallen pinecones from the tree above have been collected and piled lovingly around it. The area is like a sweet smelling cozy little nest. Paintbrushes and pencils are stuck into the ground, and little messages, painted rocks and carvings nestled in. A newer memorial stone has also been added, pictured below, and it’s kind of perfect.

I’m thankful to have found Emily in my own way, and I’ll find a nice spot to put my pinecone the next time I go visit.


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