On Being A Female Canadian Artist…. and the story of Emily Carr

One of the things that I have noticed during my midlife years is a sudden interest in connecting with stories of women who have had a similar life experience or travelled a similar path through their lives.

As a female Canadian artist I found myself recently drawn to the story of Western Canadian artist Emily Carr. Interestingly enough during my formal art education studies we were not taught much about Emily Carr if anything at all. I took a class on the history of Canadian art during my university years and there were few woman artists covered, as for Carr she was mentioned briefly in passing but never given the historical study she deserved. In my quest to look to female artists for inspiration and relatedness for my own process I came across Carr’s own writings in a compilation titled The Emily Carr Collection that included four of her books, Klee Wyck, The Book of Small, The House of all Sorts and Growing pains.

Emily Carr was a female Western Canadian artist who painted between the end of the 18th century into the early 19th century until her death in 1945. She was raised in Victoria B.C. by English Colonial parents in a very proper English way. Her work however, reflects the wild savage landscape of Vancouver Island and its native occupants, the very qualities of the West that many so called artists of the time claimed was unpaintable and not worth spending time on. Carr’s parents died when she was 12 and 14 years of age, leaving her to be raised  by her older sister, something she resented well into her adult years. After all a woman was not legally her own person until the law changed in 1929 which meant that prior to this a woman’s father, brother or husband had absolute rule over her life. Emily’s elder sister and then a male legal guardian appointed through her fathers will determined what Emily could do and provided the funds necessary at their discretion.  Even when Emily was living in England as a 28 year old and needed a toe amputated due to infection, the Doctor stated that he could not perform the amputation until he had permission from a guardian in Canada. Emily of course argued the point declaring that she had no parents and she was in charge of her own body.

Growing up on Vancouver Island at the turn of the century was the most influential aspect to who Emily Carr became. Her connections with the landscape of the Island and her interactions with the native communities along the coast greatly influenced her work but also the person she was to become. Emily portrays herself as a constant misfit all through her life, experiencing difficulties with relationships and obliging to the rules that contemporary society outlined as appropriate for a women.

No matter where Carr travelled to in the world she always longed for home, not for family connections but for the great outdoor experience of living in such an untouched corner of the world that continued to inspire her all through her life. The wildness of a Canadian forest provided her with a contentedness and inner calm that she would not find any where else.

To be an artist was all she aspired to and yet being able to be an artist was not always feasible to her own survival. She struggled back and forth with finding a way to be a full time artist with the need to find a means to support herself. There were many periods in her life when she was unable to paint as the reality of having to earn a living simply dominated her time. Even when she built her boarding house in Victoria with rooms to rent and a studio space intended for her to live and paint while living off the income from her tenants, things never seemed to work the way she had hoped. These were the years during the depression and finding reliable tenants was challenging for Carr. As a result she gave up her studio room to provide for the much needed income, always having to sacrifice her art making. At one point she decided to rent all the rooms out including the attic space where she resided and took to a tent in her yard inorder to make ends meet.

Making ends meet was always on her mind and another of Carr’s solutions to this became the running and raising of an English bob tail sheep dog kennel on her property. The point being that Carr was always searching for a means to simply survive and that she had several things going against her that would not allow for her to live off of her art.

First, she was living in the less civilized extreme west of Canada. Eastern Canadians were seen to have somewhat of a superiority over the rest of the country including in the art world, somethings seem to have changed very little. She was one of the first western based Canadian artists who was actually born and raised in Victoria, contrary to the four Group of seven members who had only just come out west to paint; those being from Eastern Canada or recently moved from England.

Second she was a woman aspiring to be a serious artist in a world where a woman’s place was expected elsewhere. Many of the art societies of the day did not allow woman members. Even as the Group of seven took off and Carr’s work was equal in scope and the ability to capture the untamed spirit of the Canadian landscape her work was never offered the same attention and recognition during her lifetime. It was only after the age of 50 that she was able to participate in a Group of seven show and only by the age of 64 years old did she start to feel some recognition for her work. At the age of 66 she was granted her first solo show at the Art Gallery of Toronto. Keeping in mind that she only lived to the age of 74 years.

The struggle to be an artist and recognized as such that Emily Carr experienced almost one hundred years ago makes me wonder about how much has it changed in todays world of Canadian art. How many female artists are able to survive and make a living from their art within their lifetime?  Their is a 2009 ‘Hill Study’ that was reported in the globe and mail, it determined that most artists in Canada are living in poverty. According to this report 43% of Canadian artists are earning less than $10,000 annually. It also showed there are currently more female artists(74,000)than males(66,000) in Canada and that female visual artists are the poorest paid of all the artist categories. Female artists earn much less than their male counterparts.

Perhaps one can only hope and expect for any significant success until after the age of 50. After all by this time if you have been practicing most of your life you should hopefully have evolved skills and worldly wisdom to offer. I think the key may lie somewhere in the area of being able to stay current with an awareness of todays radically changing world and being able to respond to it, but I don’t really know for sure.

I try to remain focused on my own work at the same time as exposing myself to what other artists out there are creating, I work hard at not giving in to quitting when I encounter self doubt and frustration; it isn’t easy.  No one said it would be easy to be a female Canadian artist in 1920 as Emily Carr must have realized and it is no different in the year 2011 as I am aware of and I’m not sure how much we as woman have really moved forward since the days that Emily Carr pursued her passion, but I do know it is imperative to my soul’s purpose and desire to express myself in this way as I imagine it must have been for Emily Carr. So onward I go continuing to make my own art.  I look forward to life after 50 as an artist (although I still have a few years to go).

I have become involved this year with an organization that I feel has the potential to become a great contribution to the Canadian Art world. The Women’s Art Museum Of Canada dedicated to preserving the Canadian Women’s visual heritage. The dream will be to eventually have a permanent location that honors the many  Canadian women artists who have contributed to the art world. If you would like to support this dream please visit the website at http://www.wamsoc.ca/

6 thoughts on “On Being A Female Canadian Artist…. and the story of Emily Carr

  1. Clare

    Deb, I really enjoyed your thoughtful reflection on the life of Emily Carr and the larger struggles of being successful as a woman artist. It made me ponder the meaning of “success” as an artist. Is it only measurable by ones ability to produce art, sell pieces, make money and receive public acclaim in the external world, or does “success” as an artist come from within, from a place of “knowing” that one is fully engaged in one’s passion, in touch with what really matters, in love with art, in love with life! How awesome, how sustaining, how success FULL is that!!

    1. deborahcatton Post author

      Thank you Clare for reading my post and commenting…Yes Success! The definition of success is subjective and may be varied from person to person, but to an artist to be able to support oneself with ones artistic work is a measure of success. It does have to come from within; I think for a successful artist their art must be at the core of their life. Some may find absolute satisfaction and fulfilment in the process of creating and never needing to share with anyone and then others will need to take it another step further, birthing it into the greater consciousness by sharing it with the world. i’ve thought about that, I could just keep making works and they would pile up in my studio space and never have a life outside of the studio walls or I have to find a way to release them so that others could experience them. When I see that something I created has become meaningful to another person, something about it has resonated with them on a deeper level, I do feel I have been succesful!

  2. Verna McLean


    Your comments are well founded. I’m researching an obscure Canadian female artist. Clara Isabella Harris, who studied under JW Beatty and exhibited with the Group of Seven and their contemporaries. But she like so many women artists remained virtually unknown. I’ve have always conceded that the only reason that Emily Carr was given any credence was that she was not seen as a threat to the Group os Seven. If she’d painting at Go Home Bay or Algonquin Park I’m sure she would have gotten a cold shoulder and her talent would have been minimized.



    Verna McLean

    1. Jean MacIntyre

      I have a Clara Harris painting. My Mom told me it was given to her for a wedding present by her cousin who was a friend of Clara.

      1. deborahcatton Post author

        How wonderful for you Jean. There is not enough written about Clara Harris. What is the painting about?

  3. Bonnie Dennison

    I am in possession of a Clara Harris (oil on burlap) painting which I purchased at a house auction in Tavistock, Ontario, in the late 1960’s. The painting is that of flowers in a planter immediately behind four red books held by an elephant book end on each side. There is a jug to the right of this. It is framed in a plaster-cast bronze frame .. exquisite indeed.


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