Emily Carr and Rejection

Emily Carr and Rejection

carr1.jpgI just read an article on Emily Carr, "How To Be A Woman", by Lewis Desoto (MacLean's, April 28, 2008). I love Carr and appreciated the article. But one section in particular stuck out for me:
Because she was a woman, and an unconventional one, Emily always struggled against the expectations and prejudice of men, as well as other women, both as an artist and an individual. She had certain "bad" characteristics. She smoked cigarettes. She used strong language. She played cards. She rode a horse astride, like a man, instead of sidesaddle, like a polite young woman. Then there were her friends. She championed a Chinese artist who had been rejected by a local art society because of his race. She often visited a man confined to a lunatic asylum. She took a mentally handicapped boy along on a few of her local sketching excursions. She formed a friendship with a Native woman who was considered an alcoholic prostitute. And then there were the Indians. It was bad enough that she painted images of what was considered a savage and primitive art form. But Emily went further than that; she actually went to live among the Native people on her trips and slept in their houses. Conventional observers saw this behavior as a betrayal of all the civilizing virtues for which their society stood. Emily was independent, forthright in her views, and had a healthy disrespect for the established order. Some of her contemporaries considered her selfish, egotistical, and irritable, qualities accepted in a man but deemed unfeminine in a woman. We could also say that she was ambitious, dedicated, hardworking, and didn't suffer fools gladly, but local society had already filed her away in the category of outsider and eccentric. Male artists were allowed to be eccentric, bad-tempered, or sexually profligate. Such traits were often attributed to their creative temperament, and might even be seen as a sign of genius. A woman who exhibited the same traits was considered mentally unbalanced.
Now Emily Carr's work is considered monumentally important, not just because of the daring advances she made in artistic expression, even pioneering ideas 10 years before the Group of Seven, but because of the necessary contributions she has made in our understanding of the early Indian culture on the West Coast. Now she's "one of us". Which is fine. This always happens. It even happened to Jesus... a wild, difficult and untamable man who later became the kind teacher in the gospels with a glowing halo, throbbing heart and surrounded by adorable children. Same with Paul, who, it has been said, didn't always leave behind fond memories during his visits. Now he is the patron saint of the western church where most pastors want to be like him. Time has a way of appropriating what we used to reject. Desoto points out that Carr's work was met with silence early on:
All artists at some point ask themselves what use their work is to the world. If Emily thought she had found a use for herself and her talent, she was disappointed. An artist can fight against resistance; some even thrive on it. But to be ignored is the worst response of all.
Which is why I encourage you to explore the edges of the church and Christendom. Are you interested in the natives out there? Do you care about the world? You will get criticized frequently and severely. But mostly you will just be ignored. I went to bed the other night really upset because I was to attend a formal church gathering the next day. I don't look forward to those events because I feel that we are so misunderstood as a community of faith. I find sitting in that milieu of misunderstanding really unnerving. In the night I had a dream where Lisa and I and our community was way out in the northern wilderness... like Into the Wild kind of wilderness. There was a main road. There were others just off the main road and they were respected because they seemed radical because they weren't on the main road. But the only way people could make sense of their radicalism was because they were close enough to the main road to be understood. Their radicalism was recognizable because they were close enough to that which they rebelled against. It was a cool radicalism. But we were so far out there, among the natives, in the wild, so far off the main road, that we couldn't be understood or absorbed. We weren't cool. We were so far out there that no one even cared because we were so remote. I woke up from that dream  sobered: we are out there and nobody cares; and encouraged: maybe we are doing something necessary and important. It may look like we've "gone native", and we have in a way. But I think this is the incarnational approach to the world. I think that we are not of it, but we are certainly in it. And this will be the source of your criticism, your being misunderstood and even your being ignored.

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