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Growing Pains: The Emerging Aesthetics of Emily Carr

The discussion of Emily Carr's Growing Pains was written by Greg Dixon during studies of Canadian Literature. As with all literary analysis, you are encouraged to read the original before reading the commentary.

While the last chapters of Growing Pains contain focused discussions of Carr's growing aesthetic of Art, direct discussion of aesthetics is rare in the rest of the work. The young Emily Carr has an inner drive to paint, but has little interest in formal analysis. Yet the events chronicled by the mature Carr reveal a developing artistic sensibility. Through repeated contrasts of living things versus dead things, imitation versus authentic expression, and inner essence versus exterior appearances, Carr retraces her long and often painful journey towards an Art form capable of expressing the essential nature of the Western forest.

The child Carr is presented as a loner who intuitively seeks refuge in the forests and lily fields near her family home. Perhaps the earliest statement of the importance of the forest to Carr's artistic work comes in the description of wandering into the forest on the family pony:

    I let down his bridle and we nibbled, he on the grass, I at the deep sacred beauty of Canada's still woods. Maybe after all I owe a "thank-you" to the remittance ones and to the riding whip for driving me out into the woods. Certainly I do to old Johnny for finding the deep lovely places that were the very foundation on which my work as a painter was to be built. (p. 14)

This natural affinity for living nature is expressed over and over throughout Growing Pains, often in the form of recurring descriptions. Living things are often contrasted with dead things: wild lilies (p. 8) versus "decaying vegetables" (p. 18) of still-life studies in San Francisco; Antique Class versus Life Class (pp. 99-101); Spring in the English countryside versus the "money-grabbing" and grimy London (p. 137). One of my favourite passages is Carr's reaction to the mummy-room, with "all the solemnity choked out of death", and her shocking declaration to Aunt Amelia and Miss Green:

    ...Good decent corpses for me, Miss Green, worms wriggling in and out, hurrying the disagreeables back to dust, renewing good mother earth.

To Carr, organic recycling into the living earth is much preferred to the "disinfected" death of Egyptian mummies.

The live model in the Life Class provides a more positive example of living as Carr is able to overcome her inbred prudishness to experience the truth explained to her in San Francisco (pp. 30-31) of the difference between nude and naked:

    Her live beauty swallowed every bit of my shyness. I had never been taught to think of our naked bodies as something beautiful, only as something indecent, something to hide. Here was nothing but loveliness...only loveliness - a glad, life-lit body, a woman proud of her profession, proud of her shapely self, regal, illuminated, vital, highpoised above our clothed insignificance. (p. 100)

Carr finds little else that is living in the galleries and studios of London. She finds the English approach to Art overly concerned with the reproduction of lifeless antiquities:

    Why must these people go on, and on, copying, copying fragments of old relics from extinct churches, and old tombs as though those were the best that could ever be, and it would be a sacrilege to beat them? Why didn't they to out-do the best instead of copying, always copying what had been done? (p. 97)

The theme of imitation versus original expression appears often, with one of the examples applied to Carr herself; she is disgusted with herself for "prostituting Indian Art" (p. 231) by applying the Indian designs to her pottery. She is even more disgusted by the opportunistic potters who followed her example:

    I loved the beautiful Indian designs, but I was not happy about using Indian design on material for which it was not intended and I hated seeing them distorted, cheapened by those who did not understand or care as long as their pots sold. (p. 232)

The Indian way of portraying nature had helped Carr to find an appropriate form for capturing the spiritual essence of the Western forests:

    The Indian caught first at the inner intensity of his subject, worked outward to the surfaces. His spiritual conception he buried deep into the wood he was about to carve. Then - chip! chip! his crude tools released the symbols that were to clothe his thought - no sham, no mannerism. The lean, neat Indian mind carved what the Indian mind comprehended. (pp. 211-212)

Yet Carr needed to reach beyond imitation towards a truly unique expression of nature in her Art, as Lawren Harris advises: "Put aside the Indian motifs, strike out for yourself, Emily, inventing, creating, clothing ideas born of this West, ideas that you feel deep rooted in your heart." (p. 264)

Harris also guides Carr towards abstraction:

    "....When in your letter, you refer to 'movement of space', that is abstract, try it....Take an idea, abstract an essence. Rather, get the essence from Nature herself, give it new form and intensity. You have the 'innards' of the experience of nature to go by and have done things which are so close to abstraction that you should move into the adventure much more easily than you perhaps think." (pp. 259-260)

While Carr says she was "not ready for abstraction" (p. 260), she comes to see the inner truth of a forest in her dream of greenery:

    In my dream I saw a wooded hillside ...tree-covered, normal, no particular pattern or design to catch an artists eye were he seeking subject-matter. But, in my dream that hillside suddenly lived - weighted with sap, burning green in every leaf, every scrap of it vital!

Just as Carr had glimpsed the living beauty of the nude model, she perceived the vital, living essence beneath the superficial details of the forest in her dream. It is this vital essence that she captures in the best of her Art and expresses in her uniquely personal, spiritual, somewhat abstract Art. If any formal aesthetic of Art can be ascribed to the work of Emily Carr on the basis of Growing Pains, it is that her Art strives to express the living beauty and spiritual essence of her wild Western forests.