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Emily Carr grappled with Sea to Sky landscapes



"Mountains towering - snow mountains, blue mountains, green mountains, brown mountains, tree-covered, barren rock, cruel mountains with awful waterfalls and chasms and avalanches, tender mountains all shining, spiritual peaks way up among the clouds."

- Emily Carr, The Journals of Emily Carr

Emily Carr immortalized them on her canvas, but the mountains didn't seem to yield so easily to her brush. In the three-and-half weeks she visited the Sea to Sky region in 1933, Emily Carr seemed to be enamoured and intrigued by the mountains, but they also presented an artistic challenge.

It was nothing that she had attempted before, but the time spent in Brackendale, Lillooet and Seton, and the sketches that emerge from the visit still manage to evoke, sometimes hauntingly, the mystery and the spirit of the place.

"It's through these paintings and sketches that her spirituality is revealed. She is a deeply spiritual person and the mountains and the native Indian churches, the folk art are all inspirations for her," said Eric Andersen, the Squamish historian who has researched Carr's visit to the region for the past five years.

Andersen, along with Doreen Ramus, presented a riveting multimedia show of Carr's paintings and the photographs from the era on Oct. 7 at the Squamish Public Library.

As Ramus read Carr's journals, Andersen spoke on the painter's visit to the area. Carr, Andersen said, had family and friends in Brackendale and she wanted to visit them, but also wanted to bring the landscapes closer to herself on her canvas.

Carr had struck an enduring friendship with a local named Lillian Rae and a native couple, Sophie Frank and her husband Jimmi Frank. Carr arrived in Brackendale with her dogs. She travelled to Pemberton and Seton, where she spent a few days, hiking and trying to get the mountainous vistas on her canvas.

She painted the meadows in Pemberton, but perhaps the most touching are the portraits of the churches in Seton, with tall craggy mountains rising behind them like guardian angels.

But producing them on the canvas was something Carr struggled with.

"Oh, these mountains! They won't bulk up. They are thin and papery. At 'em again, old girl, they're worth the big struggle," she writes in her journal.

Later in the journals, she laments again.

"They ought not to go out as pictures, finished," she writes. "I feel them incomplete studies, just learners not show-ers."

Andersen said Carr never dated or signed her paintings and the 40 to 60 sketches and paintings she painted in the region were gifted to her friends or were sold quite cheaply. She also left some of them with her family, but these paintings are being slowly recovered from private collections for public art galleries.

Andersen said his curiosity about Carr's visit to the Sea to Sky region was kindled when Thor Froslev of the Brackendale Art Gallery talked about her visit. Since then, Andersen has been busy researching the art galleries and local and Vancouver libraries about the Carr's visit.

"I found it really intriguing that she visited this place. It's a matter of local history, it's also a matter of local pride in how visitors and artists have responded to our landscape," he said.

Anderson said when talking of Carr, the focus is often on her life and work on Vancouver Island, but it's usually forgotten that she had a special relationship with the Squamish Nation people.

"Her relationship with Squamish Nation people is often underemphasized, but it was a longer and deeper relationship than any other coastal region where she worked or lived," he said.

Andersen said his research on Emily Carr's visit is part of a wider research on how other acclaimed artists like Frank Johnston and Fred Varley from the Group of Seven engaged with the natural landscapes of the region.