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Finding Emily

Beyond the doorway, brilliant colour caught my eye and I headed there like a bee to a flower. The brushstrokes, the colours, the energy drew me in. If this had been the only painting I saw at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I would have been satisfied.

I had discovered Emily Carr.

It isn’t like I didn’t know who she was and the place she holds in Canadian culture before that moment. But this? This was something different. She got “inside”.

Emily Carr, Trees in the Sky
Trees in the Sky, Emily Carr, 1939

After returning home to Nova Scotia, I kept thinking about that painting and the woman who created it but life kept me busy. Then…I became ill. (I wonder now if it wasn’t God saying, “This is important. You need to stop and look at what I’m showing you!”)

For two weeks, about all I could do was lie in bed, sleep and read so I went looking for a book about Emily Carr, only to discover she was also a gifted writer. I could get to know her through her own words. And as I read, she began to teach me.

When someone’s name becomes a household word, we often forget the struggle and work they put in before their recognition by the world. Emily didn’t attain success until she was in her late 50’s. She even gave up painting for 15 years while she earned a living. Her autobiography “Growing Pains” introduced me to the journey she took.

However, it’s in her journal, “Hundreds and Thousands” that I really got to know her. Because she never meant her journals for publication, she wrote to herself and there’s an informal honesty in the words. Reading them felt like sitting at the kitchen table, sharing a coffee with her and chatting about creativity and what it took for her to make art.

For instance, she offers this advice:

I took always in my sketch-sack a little notebook. When I had discovered my subject, I sat before it for some while before I touched a brush, feeling my way into it, asking myself these questions, What attracted you to this particular subject? Why do you want to paint it? What is its core, the thing you are trying to express?

Now I find myself writing in my own journal more, becoming mindful of the subjects I choose. I ask myself bigger questions about things that catch my eye and look beyond the surface. I’ve already come up with some answers that have surprised and delighted me.

This next quote also jumped out at me. After reading it, I closed the book to let it sink in.

Inspiration is intention obeyed.

I can’t say exactly why that quote strikes me so deeply. Perhaps it’s because moving to Nova Scotia now feels like an inspired decision but it began as an intention to live simply and creatively. I’m still peeling back the layers of those words and I suspect there will be at least one more blog post about it.

Her work inspires me but not because I want to copy her style. Rather it was her search to find her own way I connect with. I want to put more of me into my work. Emily agrees.

Another’s thoughts are not ours and to copy them gives no growth. Be careful you do not write or paint anything that is not your own, that you don’t know in your own soul.

Like a great teacher, her words challenge me to ask myself, “What do I need to learn here?”