Spiritual Expression

(photo:Tomas Svab) copyright Vancouver Art Gallery, all rights reserved.

(photo:Tomas Svab) copyright Vancouver Art Gallery, all rights reserved.

(photo:Trevor Mills) copyright Vancouver Art Gallery, all rights reserved.

(photo:Trevor Mills) copyright Vancouver Art Gallery, all rights reserved.

“Last night I dreamed that I came face to face with a picture I had done and forgotten, a forest done in simple movement, just forms of trees moving in space. That is the third time I have seen pictures in my dreams, a glint of what I’m striving to attain.” Emily Carr

This post is not likely to offer up any insight into, or a new take on, either of the two works which are the subject of its content. Instead, my intention in bringing them to attention here is to present you with an experiment in perception, by the comparison of two works created some 25 years apart. These two pieces share both subject matter and title: ‘Wood Interior’. The first was made in 1909 and the second, c. 1933. My proposed experiment involves tracing Carr’s maturation of mastery in giving palpable expression to the living spiritual presence within the interior of these woods, as she herself experienced it.

In my view, with regard to technique and execution in successfully depicting their specific subject matter, both works exhibit incontestable evidence of Carr’s mastery of the medium. In fact, what I find so compelling about these two, is that the seed(*) of what Carr was, eventually, able to achieve in the later work is clearly evident in the earlier one. (*-pun so intended) In observing these two together in this way, I am fascinated by the profound difference between them with regard to their quality of expression in communicating the spiritual dimension present within their shared subject matter.

The 1909 work gives a very accurate and engaging depiction of the interior of a wooded landscape. One clearly sees the intense study of her subject, both its physical as well as its non-physical features are given powerful expression by Carr’s genius. Viewing this work, I receive a strong sense of the living spirit present in this wood’s interior. Intriguingly, we are shown the forest floor where the roots are and where these towering giants rise from the earth and reach high into the sky. The tops of these trees are so high that only shafts of direct sunlight are visible down near the ground. Giving us this view, Carr is showing us each separate feature of this landscape, as well as where they all are united. It is a unified, harmonious, composition, but one which (to my eye) gives too much emphasis to each separate element of the whole. And even though sunlight is shown to be playing & dancing among the trees and through their branches, I find the scene to be rather static and stiff. But behind this, one senses something very powerful seeking full release from all constraints. This is what most fascinates me about this piece. Carr, at this stage in her development, is able to give a masterfully realistic and traditional depiction of her chosen subject, and one can strongly sense her desire to communicate a dimension of the scene which is meta-physical: a living spirit that animates these physical elements and unites them in a harmonious whole, which is more than the mere sum of its parts. But to my eye, it doesn’t quite come off in this work. It’s there, but muted.

25 years later she returned to the same subject and created a canvas that shares the title of the earlier work. Something not unique in Carr’s oeuvre, at least two other works from the 1930’s share this title, however this one in particular suggests (to me) that she may have had the 1909 work in mind when composing this wooded interior. And here you clearly see that what was simply hinted at in the earlier piece is now realized with the full power of Carr’s mature mastery of her medium. This is really a breathtaking work. It is currently on display as part of the ‘Emily Carr: Deep Forest’ exhibition at the VAG. The words harmonious composition are plainly insufficient to accurately describe all that is present in this work. From the shape of the trees with their canopy of branches and the lush undergrowth on the forest floor, together with a diverse, yet specific, palette of colours, Carr gives the viewer a sense of that indescribable something which is the reason for the wood’s existence as well as for the existence of the viewer her/himself. Movement, Life, Spirit, Harmony, and Unity are all words which spring to mind as I gaze upon this masterpiece. Anything else I write will just be babble. Simply contemplate these two brilliant works by Carr and marvel at how she, as an artist, was able to achieve exactly what she was striving to attain, plus to have done so with such remarkable skill, talent, genius, and a dedication to her craft; which is an inspiration to not only other artists, but to every sentient being.

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Emily Carr: Deep Forest/First Visit

“Trees love to toss and sway; they make such happy noises.” Emily Carr

I currently reside in the centre of downtown Vancouver. As with most large cities, there is noise pollution – a constant din of acoustic assault. Although I’ve slowly become accustomed to it, I will never feel comfortable within it. I spent my childhood in a small town situated in the midst of densely forested mountains, where I spent countless hours playing and wondering deep into the woods, far from any human sounds other than my own. Fortunately, Vancouver allows one to travel by public transit to areas which quickly bring one into non-urban, natural, environments. Stanley Park and Lynn Canyon being two of my personal favourites. I’ve lived in cities for most of the past 30 years, and even though I love the conveniences and opportunities they afford one, the sublime serenity found in a completely natural environment cannot be equalled in its ability to not only feed & fill the soul, but to inspire one’s spirit with the ecstasy of unadulterated existence.

Yesterday afternoon I stepped out of the noisy city streets and into an oasis of quietude, composed of paper, canvas, and oil paint. An oasis of works by Emily Carr, whose subjects are the forests of this beautiful region of our planet. It was my first entrance into this exhibition, as well as my very first encounter ever with these pieces Carr herself created. The works are showcased in two adjacent rooms, with approximately 15 pieces per room. I’ve seen it advertised that there are 40+ works on display as part of the Deep Forest exhibition, but I counted only 30. On my next visit I’m going to inquire about the other 10. I wish to experience as many of her majestic works as possible.

On this first encounter, even though I was intrigued and fascinated with each individual work, there were three in particular which held me captive the longest and most intensively. These three, as it happens, are hung together side by side and are the sole occupants of a single wall in the room where they are located. The effect, at least upon myself, is one of an unintended (by Carr) triptych; each piece is able to stand alone, yet still receives from and supplies to the other two subtle and palpable waves of influence, through stylistic harmony and spiritual unification, beyond their empirical separation. I give kudos to the curator for that, ’cause it just can’t be mere coincidence. The three are: Tree Trunk, 1931, oil on canvas, VAG 42.3.2., Forest, British Columbia, 1931-32, oil on canvas, VAG 42.3.9., and the work for which this exhibition is named ~ Deep Forest, c.1931, oil on canvas, VAG 42.3.16. These three, along with many other of Carr’s works, can be seen here in the VAG’s wonderful online virtual museum page dedicated to Emily Carr

As it was a Monday afternoon, the exhibition was not too busy with foot traffic. I spent about an hour in each room, simply and slowly soaking in these works while others would occasionally wonder in and swiftly move from one piece to the other and then quickly exit the exhibition. There were a few precious and fleeting moments during those two hours, when I was alone with the artworks and could sit in a silence which, when undisturbed, was sufficient to instantly render that room a sacred space. I suppose, to some, these are only pieces of curiosity made famous by a well-known local artist. But for myself, they are so much more. With these works, Carr was intentionally seeking to communicate with oil paint, via canvas and paper, a sense of the living spiritual presence(s) she encountered deep within the forests of British Columbia. Her mastery of craft and genius of skill, most evident in these pieces, executes this aesthetic desire, thrillingly, and invites the viewer to discover the spiritual presence within themselves; a presence which resonates effortlessly & harmoniously within the works on display. On a wall, situated in a space which adjoins the two rooms of the exhibition, are written these words by Carr: “So many of us open our flesh eyes but shut the eyes of the soul”. A very fitting and somewhat ironic statement, given the persons who pass by it quickly with a glance and unwittingly serve as paradigms for its very sentiment.

I’m very excited to re-visit this exhibition, so that I may delve deeper into Emily’s ‘Deep Forest’. These artworks are of such richness and vibrancy, possessing an amazing ability to communicate a spiritual sensitivity by the depiction of dense foliage found just some kilometers both north and west of here, that I will be going back again and again until they are taken down and disappear from view. Along with the above mentioned quote by Carr, is another which reads: “In the forest think of the forest, not of this tree and that but the singing movement of the whole.” She certainly heard that harmonious singing while sitting and sketching deep in the forest, and her remarkable ability to transpose that woodland acoustic, back in her studio, into these glorious artworks, is here for all to see and marvel at until it isn’t anymore.

{As the final word of this first post, I’d like to share a non-Carr related anecdote from my visit to the art gallery ~ Currently at the VAG (along with ‘Deep Forest’) is an exhibition entitled: ‘Kimsooja Unfolding’. One of the installation pieces in this exhibition is very unique and quite delightful. It is in a room which is roughly twenty feet long and about twelve feet wide. Along the length of this room are suspended in succeeding rows various pieces of fabric, each one about 4’x4′ with three or four in each row, and all are designed with Korean Buddhist motifs. They are interspersed in a way which makes it impossible to see any further than a couple of feet in any direction. Two other features of this installation make it an experience of exquisite exploration (if you’re open to it); the pieces of fabric are suspended on wires which are attached to the two walls of this open room. Each of these walls is covered with a mirrored surface, giving the impression of a much larger expanse of fabric and space; plus, acoustically playing in this space is the soft and constant chanting of Tibetan monks. The whole effect is really quite remarkable to experience….if you’re open to it, as I said. And this brings me to my anecdote< While I was contentedly wandering alone in this delightful atmosphere, there came passing through an elderly lady who seemed to find it all quite disorienting and overwhelming. She shuffled with hesitancy through the hanging rows of fabric, seeking some way out, all the while hugging one of the walls, and moved quickly on. Witnessing this scene, I thought to myself: “What a perfect embodiment of what the unprepared soul experiences in the bardo realm”. I’m sure that lady is fine now and safe at home. I would just like to thank her & the universe for providing me with that well-crafted moment of spiritual instruction.}

So until my next post….stay tuned to this wavelength, if you’re still here after all that above. 😉