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Heroes of History: Emily Carr| Heros de l’histoire: Emily Carr


Indian House Interior with Totems (1912-1913) Source: Vancouver Art Gallery/Canadian Virtual Museum.

Here at YMCA Exchanges, we’re big fans of travel, especially when it comes to taking those kinds of trips that not only leave you with good memories for years to come, but those that leave you with ideas to improve your life right after you come back. Those kind of trips that make you want to tell everyone else *right now* about what you saw and how they have to see it too (in real life, not just through your Instagram page). Canadians have been taking these kinds of trips for a long, long time, and this month’s hero of history–painter, writer and all-around inspirational person Emily Carr– is no exception. Of all the travels she took in her life (and there were many!) three trips in particular shaped the course of her life and are the reason why she is a Hero of History to us today.

Emily Carr at 21 years old, 1893. Source: Vancouver Art Gallery/Canadian Virtual Museum

Emily Carr at 21 years old, 1893. Source: Vancouver Art Gallery/Canadian Virtual Museum

Emily Carr was born on December 13, 1871 to British-born parents in Victoria, British Columbia, the 5th of 6 children. While growing up, she took an interest in the nature around her, which led her to draw many pictures of the trees, animals and beautiful scenery that was never too far from where she lived, despite no one in her family having any aspirations to making art and a lack of artistic role models. Emily’s parents died when she was in her early teens, and she took comfort in her art. Some time later, she convinced her guardians to send her to the California School of Design in San Francisco, and while there, she built on her artistic talents, learning the basics of painting.  She returned to British Columbia three years later and began using her newly minted skills, teaching art classes for young children.

While living in Victoria, she realized that the art world outside of her hometown was brimming with new styles, influences and potential, far more than the current level of her skills and what her hometown had to offer to improve those skills. She seized an opportunity to travel to France with her sister Alice in 1910, and arrived in Paris to discover the modernist art movement, among the many others that were starting at the time.  Emily took classes at the famous (and controversial for its time, as it was the first to accept female students) Academie Colarossi, but ultimately developed her talents with a British artist, Harry Gibb. Despite the budding art movements of cubism, futurism, abstraction, and fauvism, Emily developed her own post-impressionist style of painting, and returned to Victoria in 1912 with a renewed and improved set of skills to use in her creations.

In addition to the nature around her, Emily had always taken an interest in the Native peoples of the Pacific Coast, who shared much of the same landscape, but were a world away in terms of their customs, lifestyle, and especially art. The goal for the next stage of her artistic creations was to document the various totem poles and other artistic parts of the lives of the First Nations of BC. To do this, she traveled to the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Skeena River area for 6 weeks, documenting the art of the Haida, Gitksan, and Tsimsham people. The drawings and carvings she made from this trip would be the basis of many of her most famous works which showcased two important themes: the life and art of the Aboriginal cultures of the past, and the landscape of west coast Canada.

A Skidegate Beaver Pole (1941-1942). Source: Vancouver Art Gallery/Canadian Virtual Museum.

A Skidegate Beaver Pole (1941-1942). Source: Vancouver Art Gallery/Canadian Virtual Museum.

Though much of her work was unknown to Canada until after her death in 1945, Klee Wyck (“the laughing one”, her name given to her by her Native friends while traveling through the Queen Charlotte Islands) made an impact on many works of Canadian art in the years afterwards, especially those depicting Native culture. She is known as a “Canadian Icon” of Canadian art. From her travels to the United States, France and within Canada, her life is a statement in that travel leads us to open our horizons, to tell our stories and more importantly, to share the stories of others.

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Hero Of History: Bill Reid|Un héro de l’histoire : Bill Reid

Bill Reid.

Bill Reid, with his sculpture “The Raven and the First Men”.| Bill Reid, avec sa sculpture “The Raven and the First Men”. (Source: The Raven’s Call/l’Appel du Corbeil)

Si vous êtes déjà allé au Musée canadien de l’histoire, à Hull au Québec, vous avez probablement remarqué ceci : une sculpture, à la fois étrange et remarquable, d’un bateau rempli d’un tas de personnages bizarres ayant l’air d’avoir navigué d’un endroit lointain et surnaturel. « L’esprit de Haïda Gwaii » ou « La pirogue noire » sont les œuvres de Bill Reid, artiste et joailler célèbre et bien aimé,  auxquelles les Canadiens sont généralement initiés. De plus il est connu pour avoir joué un rôle dans la renaissance de l’esprit et de la culture haïda en Colombie-Britannique. Mais qui était Bill Reid au juste?

Bill Reid est né en 1920, à Victoria en Colombie-Britannique, d’une mère haïda et d’un père américain (de descendance européenne). Il a vécu son enfance dans plusieurs endroits et, ayant grandi dans des communautés blanches, il ignorait donc tout de sa descendance haïda, tout comme sa mère qui avait été forcée de fréquenter un pensionnat autochtone. Il ne s’est jamais perçu comme étant autochtone malgré qu’il ait toujours été en contact avec la famille du côté maternel.

Reid a vite découvert qu’il faisait partie d’une lignée de talentueux artistes. Son grand-père, Charles Gladstone, était un expert en construction de bateaux et joailler. Charles Edenshaw, son arrière-grand-père était un grand sculpteur et joailler haïda. Aussi, à partir de 1962 jusqu’à sa mort en 1998, Bill Reid se consacra à l’art haïda et à la restauration de mats totémiques, ainsi qu’à de nombreux autres projets. À  travers son art, Reid,  tout en dévoilant l’histoire des Haïdas, fut amené à découvrir sa propre descendance et son histoire de famille.

Des anthropologues et historiens d’art ont décrit Bill Reid comme une sorte de « pont »  entre la nouvelle génération d’artistes de la côte du Nord-Ouest et les anciens maitres haïdas, ou comme « un porteur de changement » ou encore comme « un courtier culturel ». La prochaine fois que vous verrez « L’esprit de Haïda Gwaii », portez bien attention, peut-être apercevrez-vous Reid lui-même, soit le Corbeau (l’emblème de sa famille) qui fait en sorte que les choses se produisent par hasard. Le travail de Reid par contre ne provient pas du hasard, il est admirablement sculpté dans notre histoire.


The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, one of Reid’s most famous sculptures| “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, une des sculptures la plus fameuse de Bill Reid. (Source: The Raven’s Call| l’Appel du Corbeil)

If you’ve ever been to the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, you’ve probably seen it: a strange, yet beautiful sculpture of a boat inhabited with a strange bunch of characters, looking as if they sailed in from a distant, supernatural place. The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, or The Black Canoe, is how many Canadians are introduced to the art of Bill Reid, famed and loved artist and jewelry maker.  More so, he is known for bringing the spirit and culture of the Haida tribe in British Colombia to the forefront of Canadian history and art. But just who was Bill Reid?

Bill Reid was born to a Haida mother and an American (of European heritage) father in Victoria, British Columbia in 1920. Moving quite a bit during his childhood, Reid grew up in White communities, never learning about his Haida heritage, much like his mother, who had been forced to attend a residential school. He had always been in contact with his mother’s side of the family, yet never thought of himself as Native.

Reid soon discovered he was part of a family line of expertly skilled artists. His grandfather, Charles Gladstone, was an expert boat builder and jewelry maker; Charles Edenshaw, a famous Haida carver and jewelry maker, was his great-grandfather. He began to work on Haida art and totem pole restoration—among many other projects—from 1962 until his death in 1998. Through his art, Reid discovered his own heritage and family history while uncovering the past of the Haida.

Anthropologists and art historians have described Bill Reid as a “bridge” between the new generation of Northwest Coast artists and the Haida masters of the past, or as a bringer of change, or as a “culture broker”.  The next time you see “Spirit of Haida Gwaii”, take a closer look—you just might see a glimpse of Reid himself as the Raven (his family’s crest), who makes things happen by accident. Reid’s work is no accident—it’s carved beautifully into our history.