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Vintage Emily Carr

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Her paintings sell for upward of $500,000 and the pottery she used to sell as trinkets for 50 cents now sell for about $5,000. Schools, libraries, parks, streets and even stamps bear her name. Three books about her have been published this year alone. Yet to some in Victoria, Emily Carr will always be the crazy lady in James Bay with the monkey.

Earlier this summer, Victoria's Royal British Columbia Museum opened "Emily Carr: Eccentric, Artist, Author, Genius," a comprehensive exhibit presenting an exhaustive look at one of Canada's best known artists. Among the 80-odd framed paintings, pottery loaned from rock star Bryan Adam's personal collection, and photos of Carr at work, is a life-size recreation of "The Elephant," the caravan used by Carr for her painting and writing trips into the wilds of south Vancouver Island.

Four totem poles that historians believe Carr would have encountered on her travels to First Nations villages have been loaned to the museum and form a centrepiece.

But the items creating the greatest interest among museum-goers are Carr's personal effects – family photos, cartoons, travel journals and letters to friends and fellow artists like Group of Seven member, Lawren Harris. Many of the artifacts displayed in the 16 showcases are on show for the first time and have reduced some visitors to tears, according to Kathryn Bridge of B.C. Archives and the curatorial chairwoman of the exhibit.

"There is something about what she (Carr) has to say that still resonates," says Bridge. "She transcends time and generations and hits people. She argues with herself in her journals and people suck up that stuff today.

"Despite the datedness of some of it and the lack of political correctness, it's usually the writing people cry at."

Bridge has noticed men transfixed by Carr's diaries, and spotted three teenage boys reading one 1905 article out loud to each other. Here's a sample of the self-doubt that pervades much of the correspondence. In a letter to close friend and literary executor Ira Dilworth, in 1940, Carr writes: "Here's the m.s. (manuscript) – another disappointment. I always think they are going to be better than they are and when they are not I'm sore. Words on paper show up all the slovenliness and ignorance so very plainly."

A year later, Carr won the Governor General's award for her first book, Klee Wyck, which means "laughing one" – the name given to her by the Nuu-Chah-nulth some 40 years before.

In another letter to close friend Willie Newcombe at the end of her life, Carr is in a melancholy mood. Leaving Newcombe a trunk of what remains of her life's work – a trunk that accompanied her to San Francisco in 1890, the United Kingdom in 1899 and Alaska in 1907 – Carr suggests a clinical method of disposal.

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