Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A statue of the artist as a singular woman

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 25, 2008


On a long ago Sunday afternoon, Ann Geddes's mother took her to the art gallery. One work among many remains in her memory decades later.

The girl was smitten by the swirling greens of a forest scene.

“You could almost smell the cedars in the woods,” she says.

That introduction to Emily Carr is not unfamiliar to those who have been touched by the painter's work. Others celebrate Klee Wyck, stories and sketches about encounters with the natives of the West Coast, which won Canada's most prestigious literary award.

The title originated from a nickname given to Ms. Carr at Ucluelet. It is said to mean “laughing one.”

Ms. Carr surely would be amused by current efforts to honour her.

The goal: A statue of the artist.

Location: On the grounds of the Empress Hotel, kitty-corner from the cenotaph on the lawn of the Legislature.

The image: From the fertile mind of Barbara Paterson.

The Edmonton sculptor's bronze model of the proposed statue depicts the painter sitting on a rock, a sketchpad in her lap. Her dog, Billie, is at her side, her monkey, Woo, on her right shoulder.

The maquette weighs about 23 kilograms and stands knee high. The completed statue will be 1¼ life size, weighing considerably more than its subject.

Ms. Paterson's public commissions can be found across the country. Her Famous Five Foundation Monuments have been installed at Olympic Square in Calgary and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

The idea of a statue of Ms. Carr has been kicking around for more than a decade.

Ms. Geddes, president of the Parks and Recreation Foundation of Victoria, a charitable group raising funds to support the statue, considers the honour long overdue.

Asked why Ms. Carr deserves a statue, she answers, “Why is it not here already?”

The artist had not been long dead when Ms. Geddes had her childhood introduction to her work.

Ms. Carr breathed her last breath at St. Mary's Priory on March 2, 1945, in the building now occupied by the James Bay Inn, steps from Beacon Hill Park in which she found inspiration. She grew up in the neighbourhood, spending her early years in a house her father built on Government Street, later living in an apartment building she immortalized in one of her biographical works The House of All Sorts.

Her childhood home is now an interpretive centre. The maquette is on display in the building, where, twice a week in the summer, actor Molly Raher Newman dresses in Ms. Carr's eccentric style to read from her works.

For dedicated tourists, the house is part of a pilgrimage in which the other shrine is Ms. Carr's burial place just off Fairfield Road in the Ross Bay Cemetery.

Beacon Hill Park includes a concrete Emily Carr Memorial Foot Bridge lined with sea-washed stones from the nearby waterfront. It was built in 1953 with a $1,000 donation from her sister. A plaque midway across the short span honours Ms. Carr, who was said to have spent much of her leisure time there.

The statue was originally proposed for the park, but preservationists opposed further development there.

The landmark Empress Hotel, marking its centennial this year, agreed to have the statue placed at the corner of Government and Belleville, where it will rest beside a Douglas fir and flower beds. The bronze will not be raised on a plinth, making it easy for the public to access.

“People can pet the dog, look at the monkey, even sit on her lap and her sketchbook,” Ms. Geddes said.

A $450,000 fundraising campaign to pay for the statue was launched last week by the Parks and Recreation Foundation of Victoria, which is responsible for such civic amenities as a handwashing station at the petting zoo, as well as about 200 memorial benches scattered around the city.

Some think Ms. Carr can do for Vancouver Island what Anne of Green Gables has done for Prince Edward Island.

Ms. Carr is hailed today as a trailblazer, a member of a feminist pantheon of 20th-century artists including Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe. (Indeed, the three cultural icons were featured in a travelling exhibition that appeared at the Vancouver Art Gallery six years ago.)

Ms. Carr was an independent woman and a remarkable artist who also won a Governor-General's Literary Award for Klee Wyck in 1941.

Her contemporaries were less confident of her greatness.

After returning from year-long studies in France in 1911, she embarked on an ambitious sketching trip that resulted in a great many watercolours and canvases, few of which sold. Only with the later encouragement of Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven did she regain confidence, producing the works for which she is best known today.

She did not fit well into Victoria's conservative and conformist society, expressing her independence in ways not likely to win the approval of civic fathers, not to mention matrons.

How times change. Now, an outcast in life will be cast in bronze for eternity.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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