Emily Carr – Church in Yuquot Village (1929)

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.

Emily_Carr_Indian_Church
Emily Carr – Church in Yuquot Village/ Indian Church (1929), oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

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.

21 thoughts on “Emily Carr – Church in Yuquot Village (1929)

  1. I did a Google search on her paintings. She has so many that really resonate with me but this isn’t one of them. In a number of her paintings she seems to be able to capture the mystery and sometimes eeriness of the deep forest. Thanks for the introduction to her.

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    1. Which ones are you referring to exactly? Carr’s later paintings are swirling with light and movement. To me they feel almost transcendental. I was going to talk about those too, but the post was dragging on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I had a problem getting names for what I was looking as it seems quite a few have the same name which is probably just a generic description. Like you mentioned, they are for the most part very swirly with lots of movement and I gravitated toward the darker ones. Some of those I liked with what appear to be good titles are Cedar; Forest, British Columbia; and Old Trees at Dusk. I prefer art with realism and her works seem more impressionistic (not the movement) but for me is very effective.

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  2. I might like her writing in “Growing Pains” as much as I like the painting. I wonder if the man who liked it so much was religious. Anyway, I look her up because I didn’t know her, and I’m drawn to her evocation of natuer, which has a spiritual dimension, and which she combines with people living more in touch with it.

    This is one of my favorite of her paintings because of how far she takes imbuing nature with her own feelings about it. The green-yellow light coming through the trees is mysterious: https://i.pinimg.com/736x/fa/e4/56/fae45619595f52ebc6e0954be3922729–emily-
    carr-canadian-artists.jpg

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      1. That link got mangled somehow. It’s not the same painting, but similar. The other one was brighter, with straighter lines of light coming through. I can’t find decent veryson of it now.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Google (and the other search engines) have changed their algorithm a year or more ago and ever since it’s been a pain to find either good quality images or to find art easily. But I think I found it. It’s called Sombreness Sunlit. This is what caught my eye too, a year ago, after reading her biography. It’s like she finally makes peace with herself in this painting (one of her last ones): https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/sombreness-sunlit/oQECPO6mRN_5-g?hl=en-GB

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  3. Hey Gabriela,
    What an evocative painting and your writing surrounding it does complete justice as a way of Introduction to the artist . I checked the link you shared Dancing Sunlight, and as you have mentioned in the comments, transcendental would be a good way of describing it.
    I want to highlight the analogies in the middle of the post , lady bug and the pebble in the shoe ( how vulnerable it is ) . Your writing when it takes time , is just marvelous.
    You mention, that you wanted to do deeper into Carr’s other paintings, I hope you do a part 2. Or add the writing here, if it is drafts.
    Where else do you write, what else do you write. I want to read it all 🙂

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Rahul! I don’t have any drafts, just loooong notes taken from Carr’s autobiography and journal. I don’t think part II will come anytime soon. But rest assured, I am working on new pieces and I have other drafts that are waiting to be edited.

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