Friday 16 January 2015

My Debt to Klee Wick

The Dulwich Gallery in south east London is currently hosting to an exhibition called From the Forest to the Sea, the art of Emily Carr.

Carr is a Canadian artist who, from the late 19th to her death in 1945, constantly invented and reinvented new ways of depicting the spectacular landscapes and forests of the Northwest Pacific and of capturing the art of the indigenous people that the arrival of the colonists had all but wiped out.

To see so many of her painting all together in one place is extraordinary. You see the careful realism of her early work transform into experiments with impressionism after time spent in Paris. And then, after a hiatus when her work was rejected by critics and the public, comes her first encounter with Group of Seven, artists from eastern Canada, and Lauren Harris in particular. From that point on, she is experiments freely with style. Some have a solidity that borders on cubism, others a wild movement that have led to her being called ‘Canada’s van Gogh.’

Alongside her paintings, the Gallery is displaying other objects that put her work into context. Contemporary photographs of the totem poles that were among her favourite subjects. Her own drawings and sketches that reveal what an incredible draftswoman she was. A diary made during her first trip to Alaska with her sister, full of comic sketches and self-parodying stories. Examples of the indigenous art she loved – the bentwood boxes and woven hats and baskets, decorated with the Raven, Eagle, Heron, Whale...

Early on in her career, she acquired the nickname Klee Wick, or Laughing One from the Noo-cha-Noolth people of Vancouver island, with whom she communicated largely by way of smiles and gestures.

“Indian art broadened my seeing” she wrote. “I had been taught to see outsides only, not struggle to pierce ... The Indian caught first the inner intensity of his subject and worked outward to the surface.”

This is an exhibition I can recommend anyone to see. But for me it had a special poignancy. I grew up visiting the McMichael gallery in southern Ontario, seeing examples of indigenous art and the work of Emily Carr and the group of seven. I knew that there was a direct line from those experiences to my writing Gift of the Raven. But perhaps my debt to Emily Carr went even deeper than I realised.

In later life, when she could no longer travel up the coat to paint, Carr turned to writing, capturing her experiences in words almost as vividly as she did in paint. Take this description of Cumshawa on the Haida Gwaii:

“Cumshawa always seems to drip, aways to be blurred with mist, its foliage always to hang wet heavy. Cumshawa rain soaked my paper. Cumshawa rain trickled among my paints.”

Thirty years after I first read those words in her collections of sketches, Klee Wick, and with no direct memory of them, I wrote about Terry’s first trip to Haida Gwaii.

My grandfather’s totem loomed ahead, its Raven flying clear of the trees at the edge of the old village. It wasn’t alone. Five or six other poles stood in a loose semicircle, a little to one side. Their paint had worn away. I touched one of them and my finger left a dent in the soft cedar wood. One of them leaned crazily, its base rotted to pulp. One more lay at an angle on the ground, half covered in moss—held in shape by force of habit, I guess.

I felt in my rucksack for the sketch pad and the box of Conte crayons that Kate had given me. The thick watercolour paper was growing damp in the fog. When I started to draw, it changed the look of the pastilles. The crayon went on smooth, leaving a deeper colour. I wet my finger and rubbed at it, and the line softened. One colour bled into the next.

I worked on, letting the fog change the surface of the paper, trying things out, experimenting. Once or twice I dragged the crayon too hard and damaged the surface of the paper. But Kate’s big block of paper gave me freedom. I could make mistakes, start over. I wasn’t going to run out for a long time.

The debt I owe to Klee Wick runs very deep indeed. It was a joy to be reminded of it and a pleasure to acknowledge it.

From the Forest to the Sea runs from 1st Nov to 8th March at the Dulwich Gallery. Gallery Road, London, SE21 7AD

You can explore more about the art of Emily Carr here.

And you can learn about Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven here.

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