Emily Carr the Outlaw Artist

As a historical novel, The Forest Lover is based in the life of a very real woman Emily Carr, this book does her considerable justice.  You may not know of Emily Carr unless you are a Canadian or an artist but she was an amazing woman.

       Susan Vreeland captures her personality and her deep connection to her inner self and the spirit world of the West Coast Indians depicted so strongly in her paintings.  In doing so, she portrays the inner journey of a unique and talented woman’s life in a way that any woman aspiring to manifest her talents can benefit from.

       Not only are the personal details of Emily Carr’s life fascinating, the characters she allows into her world are more than interesting.  In Emily’s effort to be true to herself she sacrifices convention as a matter of course but the sacrifices she makes of the heart, to pursue her career, she wrestles with in full conscience.

       Susan Vreeland’s insight into this woman’s artistic soul, gives Emily a personality that all women will recognize with breathtaking awe.  Every woman has the feminine archetype known as Hestia, within her psyche; but few have coupled it with Aphrodite in such a meaningful manner.  Emily Carr is not only an amazing single woman but a great artist who devoted her life to her work.

       The price for such unique brilliance is not always obvious to others who may not identify with such a talented personality.  Susan walks us through the forests of the coast with Emily as she is inspired to find her subject matter.  Susan also walks us through Emily’s deep forests of trepidation as she finds her vocation’s path through everyday life.

       In my book, FLOWING, A Guide to CM, the word “perality” (personal moral reality) describes a particular aspect of genuine femininity that has not often been exposed.  The word "perality"  denotes a woman’s personal, moral, reality.  Emily lived her truth, her "perality" in a way that can be understood by any women - and achieved by only a few.

       The Forest Lover, is a wonderfully entertaining journey beside a woman who not only developed a strong "perality" but lived it fully and without any constraints other than those applied by herself.  As an artist of the purest caste, Emily followed her bliss, and Susan Vreeland describes each step with the power inherent in the journey – the artist’s way, the blessings of the muse, the struggle for inspiration – the aligning oneself to our inner self and to the Creator.

       This book is an outstanding example of one woman relating another woman’s inner story as she recognizes it; as one artist describing another.  Susan can relate to Emily’s indefinable but uncompromising hunger for the spirit in her subjects.  The totem poles she painted represent a dying culture, whose subjects have been scattered and abused, but whose beauty is evidenced in their glorious art – their huge carved totem poles.

       Perhaps, without realizing it Susan has documented the genuine feminine value of regeneration, in her historical biography of Emily who constantly remakes herself to follow her bliss.  And Emily has pointed to this same divine feminine principle in her painting of Dzunukwa.

       Early in her book Susan touches on the inspiration Emily receives wandering deep in the forest when she comes upon a menstrual lodge.  At first sight its sacredness goes unrecognized by Emily who is not privy to the native woman’s mysteries and ceremonies.   As she draws closer and recognizes the universal symbol of a womb painted on the outside she is transfixed by her contact with the omniscient spirit of this place – the feminine aspect of god. 

Susan portrays Emily encountering this important inspiration as follows:

       “After a short walk she saw the roof of the hut above some high bush cranberry.  She listened for any noise, but heard only the croaking of frogs, so she crept around the bushes to study the symbol painted on the wall.  Not quite oval.  More pear-shaped, upside down, outlined in black with concentric bands in red following its inner perimeter.  She sucked in her breath, and teetered a moment in disbelief.  A womb?

       To put that most private thing on a building?  Her sisters would be horrified.  They never even whispered about women’s privacies.”

       Keep in mind that Emily was raised in the stilted world of Victorian convention and that at this time in women’s history, most women were not as free of these conventions as Emily – at least not the white women.

The native women Emily met and lived with as she painted, were just being introduced to spiritual constraints by the male missionaries who had entered their encampments to civilize them.  Formerly the native women had close and meaningful ties to the source of their personal femininity – menses. 

       Emily’s dearest friend Sophie the native mother who bears, and then watches perish, twenty one children, is driven to prostitution by her obsession to “save her babies” by buying headstones for them.  She is convinced of this necessity by the local missionary priest who is actually clueless to the disaster he has caused.

After Sophie’s death from venereal disease, Emily confronts the priest asking how he could let Sophie get such a distorted view of Christianity.  He answers, “Prostitution predated Christianity on these shores.  To them, the only disgrace is when a woman doesn’t get any business.  Human frailty is universal.  Don’t expect so much and you won’t be disappointed.”

Emily’s response is, “Your prejudice is speaking, not your Christianity.”  One which shows her strength of character and wisdom, even if it doesn’t reveal the depth of both Sophie, her family’s, and friend’s real live suffering.  Instinctively Emily realized that one so callous and bankrupt of true spirit couldn’t possibly see or care about another human being.  All she could do was throw his own values in his face.  It didn’t change anything but it had to be said.

This paragraph is not the tone of The Forest Lover.  It is an example of the depth of theme that Susan insists on weaving through all the periods of Emily Carr’s life and her journey as an artist.

This book is about a woman who contributed greatly to women’s history.  Emily Carr’s life is an inspiration to us all as we struggle to be true to ourselves and reveal our inner gifts to humanity through our work.  This book is a great guide to women learning about their own talent, as well as for any woman wanting to follow her bliss even if she hasn’t named it yet.

It is a sweet reminder to those of us who know our gifts, to be generous with them, for our own good as well as for the good and guidance of those who follow.

Lynne Haines