||Spiritual Journeys of Emily Carr
by Linda Morra
Doris Shadbolt is one among a number of illustrious Canadian art historians and critics, including Maria Tippett, Paula Blanchard, and Kate Braid, who have been fascinated by, written prolifically about, and championed the life and work of Emily Carr. The range of Shadbolt's output extends temporally and critically from her first book, The Art of Emily Carr (1979), which examines Carr's visual productions, to the editing of The Complete Writings of Emily Carr (1993). As if that critical mass would not have affirmed Shadbolt's place as a leading scholar on this English-Canadian modern artist, her new book, Seven Journeys: The Sketchbooks of Emily Carr (2002), also contributes to the record and suggests why Shadbolt's work continues to merit praise and why her own name will continue to be inextricably associated with Emily Carr.
Seven Journeys contains a series of seven essays that parallel and examine Carr's sketching trips made between 1927 and 1930. Each essay focuses on a particular journey Carr made either to Skeena and Nass Rivers, to Nootka, to Port Renfrewłand so forthł and examines Carr's artistic development, for which the sketches themselves provide evidence.The essays are thus punctuated with evocative reproductions of approximately eighty of Carr's hitherto unpublished sketches, to which the general public would have had little or no access: the fragility of these sketches means that only specialists in the field would have been able to view them. Seven Journeys gives these sketches wider circulation, and, in these terms alone, the book makes a remarkable contribution to the record on Carr.
Even though the sketches are not finished works, that is, even if they might not be esteemed independently for their own intrinsic sense of design, they might be regarded as significant, as Shadbolt suggests, in relation to how Carr's work and development is conceived: that is, they are a partial "indicator" of "Carr's process of making art." Shadbolt makes it clear that the task of showing Carr's artistic maturation as manifested in the sketches was no small feat, especially since, for the purposes of conservation, the sketches were removed from their original, ordered arrangement in the books which Carr had used. To complicate matters, Carr was often quite heedless in terms of accurately documenting her work. With an art historian's eye for detail, Shadbolt has gone to great lengths to date the sketches and attribute them to a particular journey, even if, within each trip, the sketches might not be arranged in precise chronological order.
Shadbolt also takes into consideration Carr's other forms of note-taking such as her journals and storiesłand includes in her book excerpts from Carr's journalsłbut she suggests that the sketches themselves are unique in terms of what they reveal. Culled from thirteen books that Carr used over a period of three years, the drawings that Shadbolt selects indicate how Carr was experimenting with new artistic methods and striving to glean fresh visual material from some of the Native villages she was visiting. The later sketches demonstrate that Carr began to abandon "straightforward depictions," an approach she used when focussing on Native sites. Shadbolt guides her audience from drawing to drawing and suggests how they shift according to Carr's altering preoccupations: stylistically, for example, Carr's work "moved into and then well out of a phase of formal control."
The sketchbooks thus show that Carr leaves off sketching Native cultural images, even as she continues to visit Native villages, to depict "the various offerings of nature: striking individual trees, dense stands of trees climbing a cliff-side, a rolling line of hills, a pebbled shoreline with a tangle of driftwood." Some of these ideas were informed by her association with the Group of Seven, whose interest in the "mythic role" of landscape Carr found particularly beguiling. Shadbolt argues that her encounter with the Group induces the disappearance of "human figures and activity, which had appeared in her early Native scenes and in her paintings of the French countryside." Her contact with Harris in particular is judged by Shadbolt as having "opened up to her the possibility that an artist might draw on other levels of his/her resources: those psychic or spiritual." The West Coast forests also attracted Carr, she notes, because they offered her "personal metaphors for a view of existence that answered her spiritual and emotional needs." Whatever the Group's influence in terms of Carr's shift in subject matter, the sketches ultimately confirm that Carr "had joined the ranks of modernist artists" and that "the first-hand study of the culture of west coast Native people of British Columbia had provided the subject matter for much of her work." In assessing Carr's treatment of the latter, Shadbolt is even-handed and demonstrates how, in some ways, Carr was quite sensitive to Native concerns, even as she demonstrated "the unconscious assumption of her own social superiority."
Seven Journeys makes a fine contribution to the "ongoing critical dialogue" about Carr not only because the drawings are fresh visual material "on which the mythology of Emily Carr ultimately rests," but also because Shadbolt makes new observations as derived from this material and effectively broadens the historical, social and critical context upon which further studies on Carr will be based.
Linda Morra is a Postdoctoral Fellow affiliated with the University of British Columbia, where she is teaching, researching, and publishing on a range of Canadian artists and writers, including Emily Carr.