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Four Pictures by Emily Carr

Author John Cech
Air Date 3/8/2004

Four Pictures by Emily Carr Transcript

March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day, a holiday in many countries around the world. It should also be in ours, where the events took place, in 1857, that over a century later lead, in 1977, to Unesco’s naming this day in honor of all women. The day was originally called International Working Women’s Day, in commemoration of the women textile workers who protested their low wages and horrific working conditions in New York City in the middle of the 19th century. The “working” may have been dropped from the title because it was quickly realized that working and women are, in essence, synonyms, and have always been.

Working, woman, and artist are three words that coalesce in a new book about Emily Carr, the Canadian painter, whose major subjects were the landscape and native peoples of British Columbia. Nicolas Debon’s Four Pictures by Emily Carr is a retelling of her life using four of her paintings as the starting points for each chapter of this remarkable woman’s journey to find her art, and herself.

Born in 1871, Carr came from a rather somber, stern family. Yet somehow, by the time she was eight years old, Carr had managed to persuade her stern parents to let her have art lessons, and when she was twenty, Carr went down to San Francisco to continue her studies, then to London and on to Paris, where the new, modern art of Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, and others was beginning to be shown. In Paris, Carr also had two of her paintings exhibited at one of the important salons. But the pace of life there didn’t suit her, and she eventually returned to Victoria, where she gave art lessons to children for awhile. By the late 1920s, she had put her painting aside and was raising sheep dogs when suddenly, in 1927, she was discovered, and her works were featured in a major exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art. With the sales from her pictures, she bought a small trailer, which she placed in the woods as a studio for her revitalized creative energies. Here she finally found her home, deep in nature, where, she wrote, “every plane, every scrap of the universe seemed . . . to move, swirl and dance in a continuous celebration of joy.” Carr’s is a compelling story, in and of itself, but Debon amplifies its quiet, miraculous power by placing it in the form of a graphic novel and telling it through his luminous pictures as well as hers. Much about Carr is still a mystery: comics by their very nature leave gaps. But the truly wonderful thing is that the reader gets to fill them . . . with her own imagination.

Posted in Comics, Literature