Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr (1871-1945) was best known for her landscape paintings and written works chronicling life in British Columbia. She spent much of her life in the pursuit of her art, visiting Europe to learn about art and spending extensive time with Indigenous communities on the west coast. In 1927, she exhibited her first work with the Group of Seven and built a strong relationship with Lawren Harris (1885- 1970). In the years following, Carr gained critical acclaim, painting extensively and, later, writing several books including Klee Wyck which gained her the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction in 1941.
Between 1913 and 1927, Carr left much of her artistic career, giving up painting and instead operating a boarding house in Victoria. It was during this period that she explored ceramics. Klee Wyck Bowl (c. 1924- 1926) was acquired by the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery last year and is representative of the type of work that she completed at her home in Victoria. A small bowl with a wide rim, it is decorated with painted Pacific Northwest Indigenous designs. The bowl is signed “Klee Wyck”, the name given to Carr by the Nuu-chah-nulth people meaning “Laughing One”. Seeking other sources of income as she operated her boarding house, Carr made ceramic works using local earthenware clay that she harvested herself. The works were often small and hand-built, fired once in a kiln that she built in her backyard. Carr used her knowledge of and relationships with local Indigenous communities to decorate her ceramic; she sold her pieces in local gift shops. In Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr (1946), Carr later expressed regret for using Indigenous designs as decoration for her ceramic works, writing:
I ornamented my pottery with Indian designs – that was why the tourists bought it. I hated my self for prostituting Indian art; our Indians did not ‘pot’, their designs were not meant to decorate clay—but I did keep the Indian designs pure. […] Because my stuff sold, other potters followed my lead and, knowing nothing of Indian art, falsified it. This made me very angry. I loved handling the smooth, cool clay. I loved the beautiful Indian designs, but I was not happy about using Indian design on materials for which it was not intended and I hated seeing them distorted, cheapened by those who did not understand or care as long as their pots sold.Emily Carr, Growing Pains: An Autobiography, 1946. Pages 231-232.
Considering Carr’s personal reflections on this period of work and within our shared understanding of the impacts of settler colonialism, despite her appreciation for and relationships to Indigenous communities, we recognize the problematic nature of Carr’s decoration of her ceramics. It is also important to note that her use of the term “Indian” is no longer commonly accepted in Canada, with “Indigenous” being a more appropriate alternative. Today, “Indigenous” is used to refer to more than 50 distinct groups across Canada, each with unique cultures and practices. Whenever possible we endeavour to name these groups rather than use umbrella terms such as Indigenous, Aboriginal, Inuit, or
While Klee Wyck Bowl is representative of an important period of Carr’s life, and of the art and craft of Canadian ceramics during the first world war, we can now recognize the flaws in her borrowing of Indigenous culture. This work is a signifier of a period in which Indigenous culture and imagery were not respected by many settler artists, collectors, and gift-shop owners and visitors. Klee Wyck Bowl is thus a reminder as well of the difficult history of so-called “Canadian” art and of the appropriation and devaluing of Indigenous culture. This is a history that we continue to face and encounter as we work towards reconciliation and an unlearning and relearning of the ways that we connect with those who inhabited this land many generations before us.
Peter Flannery, MA
Curator & Collections Manager