Emily’s Attic

December 14th, 2020

Tomorrow marks the end of my two weeks here in Emily Carr’s studio. I will move to more contemporary accommodations a few minutes away on the other side of her ( and now my) beloved Beacon Hill Park.

It has been an eventful two weeks, highlighted by finishing a fairly good draft of the first play of my new trilogy of one-act plays, EX3 (Emily Times Three), and a first pass at about half of the second play. All three take place in her studio, and I have had the unusual experience of actually being on the set as I write.

Of course, it isn’t “hers” anymore in many ways. The layout of the rooms has changed, and the clutter of her work environment, which also had to serve as the dining room for her boarders, and indoor residence of her many pets, is gone. Still the feel of the area where she painted is very real, and I have marveled that so many of her major paintings were propped up drying against these walls after being at first a blank canvas on an easel right where one stands today.

I think what I will remember most vividly, in part because I couldn’t take pictures and just have to burn it into my mind, is the attic. Peter Willis, whose grandmother bought the house long ago, and who now owns and manages it, gave me access to it while I was here.

Emily used to climb up a ladder and crawl through a tiny door that is still there close to the ceiling in the living room of her studio, but now, thankfully, there’s another entrance through a door in the hallway outside. From there, you ascend to find yourself in a place where her presence is still palpable.

There is a small room where Emily used to live when she was so broke she had to rent out her own rooms. It is only a few steps across, and under a sloping roof . The ceiling and walls are rough hewn lumber, as is the creaky floor. To one side there is a long crawl space going to the other end of the house, which would have been where she came in from the studio. There, in a space only about three feet high, she had her bed and space for her pet monkey, who left scratch marks in the wood. She would have had to crawl, even in her fifties and very overweight, to get to the small room in the attic I could access. There, she created what I am sure will be for me the most indelible memory of my time here.

Painted on the ceiling boards on each side of the steeply sloped roof are two eagles with their wings outspread to a length of about ten feet, the entire length of the room. They are painted in black in a design typical of the indigenous people of Vancouver Island. Below the eagles on both sides is a running border of red frogs also done in a typical indigenous style. I know archival photos exist of the eagles, but there are none I could find online, and I did honor my word that I would not take any. I did find this one of a single frog, so you can picture the style.

Tonight I made my last trip to the attic. I sat in the semi-darkness with the protecting power of the eagles overhead, letting thoughts about the many dimensions of time play in my mind. Emily has been dead for 75 years, yet her paintings live so vividly both in their material form and the eternal nature they capture. The eagles are in designs so ancient even the indigenous people don’t know their origins. Out the little window in the attic, Emily would have looked at fields and gardens where houses now stand, their Christmas lights twinkling in this ephemeral season. I left the attic tonight knowing that this was an ending, that I will most likely never be here again. Time as a river . Emily understood that well.

I talk to Emily a lot. I went to her grave yesterday on her 149th birthday,. I pass by a sculpture of her in the Inner Harbour regularly and stop to whisper a thing or two to her. But it is in her attic that I have felt her most.

I tell her I am trying to do justice to her. That though I have to invent my version of her, I am doing my best to hear her speak through the noise of my own voice, my own life, when I write. That I hope I get it right. That I wish I had known her. That every time I step into a forest I will bring her with me. And though she hasn’t told me so, I hope she is glad I am here.

Not Exactly Ghosts

December 4th, 2020

I wrote last time that I hoped the ghost of Emily Carr would visit me here in her studio. I’m sorry to report there has been no sign of her. Still, every day the place begins to mean a little more to me as I continue my research and write the first part of my play.

I touch door knobs she touched and slide my bare feet along the wood floor she walked, I stand at the big window that let in light for her painting and tell myself this is where she stood, although what she saw through it is different.

There’s a beautiful cedar that fills most of the view, and since she lived here a century ago now, I have no idea whether it was here in much smaller form, or has been planted since. The neighboring houses would not have been here either, as Emily’s lot was a carve-out from her family’s large property in James Bay. In fact, her conservative and very proper father exacted a promise from one purchaser that he would not build a tavern on any of the Carr’s land, which he promptly went and did anyway. It’s gone now and Christmas lights twinkle from the balconies of the condos that were built in its place.

Emily isn’t here, although perhaps it is she who is prompting many of the changes that have made my flat first draft richer and more satisfying in revision than I thought it would be at this point. With anything I write, my first draft is just to get it down, and it’s only at that point that I can start seeing the real potential in the story and the greater depth of the characters. Now it feels full and rounded, and respectful of what Emily was going through when, at 56, she was basically a charwoman in the boarding house she ran, trying to find time to paint at all, and still little known and underappreciated as an artist.

That was about to change, though, when she was invited to exhibit some paintings she had done of totems and Indian villages to represent the Canadian West in an all-Canada art exposition in Toronto. Her exposure there to the Group of Seven, and especially Lawren Harris, changed her vision, her approach to painting, and her life.

At that point, she began the decade that produced most of her major works, and what is blowing me away right now as I inhabit her studio, is that she painted them all right here. They would have been on her easel bathed by the light from the window I now look through. I stand on the spot where when she painted them. Dozens of painting that now hang in galleries would have been stacked against these walls. Paintings like this one

And this one

Here. Where’s I am right now. I am just in awe of that.

Emily hasn’t visited me, but other presences have. I’m not much for astrology or New Age ideas, but a friend who is big on these things told me that this is a time for one’s past to be coming up in unexpected ways, around issues that are unresolved. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like a ghost, but I have found myself suddenly ambushed by memories of those I have loved who are now gone. One such memory, something that happened over forty years ago and I haven’t thought of for years, is the last day of my father’s life. He was going into surgery to correct a problem causing congestive heart failure and we were told that he would either die on the table or recover and live with a healthy heart. His only other option was spending the rest of his life slowly dying in a hospital bed, and he chose to take the risk.

The surgery was early in the morning, and we got up before dawn to be there to talk to him before he went in. When we got there we were stunned to hear he had already gone into the operating room. No kisses on the cheek, no squeezes of the hand, no “I love you”s. No, they said, it wouldn’t be possible to go in and see him because he was in a sterile area.

Well, we all thought, we’ll do all that when he comes out. A few hours later the surgeon came out and said the repair had gone well but his heart was too weak and they could not get it started again. I remember asking if I could go in to sit with him, and the doctor said yes, but that it would require a lot of preparation. The rueful expression on his face made me understand that what he was saying is that it wasn’t a pretty sight. My father was unconscious and so deeply sedated there would be no way he would know. I decided not to, though my heart was breaking that I couldn’t hold his hand.

I think I know what happened that morning. My parents were both very gentle, very private people, not good with expressing emotions. I think he simply couldn’t handle seeing us. Or maybe he thought he was sparing us pain. I can see it either way. It must be one or both of those, because the staff knew we were on the way, and they would have waited if he wanted to.

I could go on about that day, about how some evangelical type came over to my mother, sister and I, while we were waiting for the doctor to come back and say it was over, asking if he could pray with us. I guess he meant well, but he could have seen we weren’t praying but were just crying quietly together. A complete stranger burst into that private moment wanting to turn our experience into something that comforted him. I could talk about how, at twenty weeks pregnant, I first felt my baby move within a few minutes of my father’s death. How I called my husband and told him if it was a boy he would have my father’s name, Ivan. How when we left the hospital my mother leaned against the car and said in disbelief, “I’m a widow.”

How a few weeks later I had a vivid dream in which my father came in my room and told me he was fine. How I woke up to both terrible disappointment but also elation that I had heard his voice again, seen how he walked and sat, smiled and laughed. Been with him one last time.

I could talk about honoring my son Adriano’s memory on his birthday two days ago, which was especially raw in this liminal place, between confinement and freedom, between the present and the past.

But the rest is too private, and requires more bravery than I have. So I will just say yes, the dead are here. Emily’s studio is haunted after all.

I Hope It’s Haunted

November 30th, 2020

“I can’t wait to quarantine!” Said no one ever, except maybe me to a few San Diego friends this last month.

This quarantine has actually been delightful. I just spent a week in a wonderful woodsy setting that made me miss nothing about being able to go out in the world (see photo below). The path of wet leaves and rustling cedars on the property made for beautiful outings, and inside I had four seasons of The Crown to binge watch while I had access to Netflix.

Today, I switched places for the second half of my two-week isolation, necessitated by the fact that I came back a week early and couldn’t go immediately to the quarantine spot I originally booked—the spot that had me, honest to goodness, telling friends how I couldn’t wait for the chance to quarantine.

Why? Drum roll, please, and settle in for a little background. Earlier in the year, I got the urge to write a play. It’s done now, and I was looking around for an idea for a second one. There is a very active theatre culture here in Victoria, and what looks like a lot of support for playwrights. I thought perhaps it would be good to find a topic that might resonate well here, but more important, suit the kinds of female-centered stories I love to write.

“How about Emily Carr?” I asked myself. Emily Carr (1871-1945), for those outside Canada, is one of the most important 20th century Canadian artists, who along with Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven, defined a uniquely Canadian approach to painting. The fact that few outside Canada have heard of her is the fault of their schooling, not her achievement. Probably the closest equivalent among American artists would be Georgia O’Keeffe.

Her most acclaimed works focus on the vanishing world of the indigenous people of coastal British Columbia, including many powerful representations of totems in their context. It’s her paintings of forest interiors that to me are her true masterpieces, though, capturing the life force and spiritual energy of the forest. There isn’t room here for more than one example, but please look her up and gorge yourself on her work!

Emily received little recognition even in Canada until she was in her fifties and for a number of years ran a boarding house to make ends meet. I came up with an idea for a trilogy of one-act plays set in this boarding house, and focusing on the transition points women go though in life. As I began to think through how this play might work, I looked up what years she had been running the boarding house, to know exactly how old my character would have to be. To my surprise, I saw a link to a site offering rental lodging there. Excited, I wrote to the agent, asking if by any outside chance there was anything available the first half of December, and he wrote back saying he was sorry, but the only thing available was Emily’s studio. Sorry??? Emily’s studio???

And now here I am, for two weeks in the space she custom built for herself on the second floor over the rental units. There’s a wall that is almost all window, with an empty easel next to it (in background of this photo) where she struggled to paint in her vanishingly little free time When she was here, the whole place would have been crowded floor to ceiling with canvases, animal cages ( she kept quite a menagerie, including a cherished monkey, Woo) but now it is a tidy, shabby-chic little nest, with mostly period furniture of the sort that might have been buried under all her clutter.

I felt a change come over me as I settled in, almost a metabolic slowing, so that all I want to do right now is sit and stare out the window. I’ve set up my laptop in a small day room overlooking the street, but work can wait. I am living in the room where my play is set. I can act it out as I write, see the door the actors will come in through, sit in a chair where she will sit, see her at her easel, sleep in her bedroom. The words will come. Maybe she will too.