She couldn’t believe it. In fact, she could barely lift up her eyes to look at the thing! There it was, her painting, hanging in the dining room of one of Canada’s most talented artists, a man whom she greatly admired. People were gathered all around it, gasping with delight — quite an unusual reaction to someone whose motto in life had been to keep her expectations low. Emily Carr’s Indian Church (renamed Church in Yuquot Village in 2018), was a success. Problem is it was too much of a success, as far as she was concerned.
When an overly enthusiastic Lawren Harris — who had bought the painting and hung it in his house — wrote to her “I do not think you will do anything better,” she wasn’t particularly elated. No, she was angry. “At that I flew into a rage,” Carr writes in her autobiography Growing Pains. “Mr. Harris thought I had reached the limit of my capabilities, did he! Well, my limit was not going to congeal round that Indian Church!”
Determined to change Harris’s mind, Carr sent him more paintings, paintings which she thought were better or, at the very least, as good as Church in Yuquot Village. But it was all in vain. Harris was completely bewitched and thought that no other artwork measured up. “You limit me! I am sick of that old Church. I do not want to hear any more about it,” Carr wrote to him boiling with frustration, before they finally dropped the subject for good.
Carr had first sketched the small church while traveling by steamer up the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1929. There, in the Mowachaht village, she had stumbled upon this peculiar edifice engulfed by rain forest and built by the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe of the Yuquot community.
In the painting the church looks misplaced and diminished by the green sea of foliage, an awkward monument showcasing the assimilation of Christianity by the First Nations’ local population. With its windowless walls, barely discernible door and wobbly, leaning structure, the church reveals itself less like a place of worship, and more like an unexpected guest, at odds with the wild vegetation that surrounds it.
The white crosses behind the church marking a small cemetery reinforce the clash between two different realities: on the one hand, the indigenous culture devoted to life and to the bounty of nature, and on the other hand, the Western culture with its emphasis on the afterlife, religion, and man’s control over the elements. Beyond mere representation, we can see this contrast amplified through color (white vs. dark green) and shape (the sculptural, lively forest vs. the flat religious edifice).
And yet, despite all that, there’s something rather endearing about the small church and its open vulnerability, like a smooth pebble rolling in your shoe during a morning walk or a ladybug that somehow finds itself onto your kitchen table. Because the artist isn’t questioning the merging of two cultures here, but merely shows their awkward juxtaposition and the surprise this elicits.
Carr’s fascination with the First Nations peoples dated back three decades, ever since she had visited the Ucluelet Indian Reserve on Vancouver Island in 1898. The simple life amidst lush vegetation enchanted her:
“We lived on fish and fresh air,” she writes in Growing Pains. We sat on things not meant for sitting on, ate out of vessels not meant to hold food, slept on hardness that bruised us; but the lovely, wild vastness did something to it all. I loved every bit of it — no boundaries, no beginning, no end, one continual shove of growing — edge of land meeting edge of water, with just a ribbon of sand between. Sometimes the ribbon was smooth, sometimes fussed with foam. Trouble was only on the edges; both sea and forests in their depths were calm and still. Virgin soil, clean sea, pure air, vastness by day, still deeper vastness in dark when beginning and endings joined.”
At the time, painting the great Western forests seemed unfathomable to Carr, a goal too ambitious and overwhelming in its grandiosity for her limited skill and experience:
“To attempt to paint the Western forest did not occur to me. Hadn’t those Paris artists said it was unpaintable? No artist that I knew, no Art School had taught Art this size. I would have to go to London or to Paris to learn to paint. […] I nibbled at silhouetted edges. I drew boats and houses, things made out of tangible stuff. Unknowingly I was storing, storing, all unconscious, my working ideas against the time when I should be ready to use this material.”
Unbeknownst to Carr, that trip sowed seeds that would take decades to grow into the unraveling, spellbinding forests of her artistic maturity. Among them, Church in Yuquot Village remains one of her best works. Carr’s best work, if you asked Lawren Harris.