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Forest, British Columbia

Forest, British Columbia, 1931–1932
oil on canvas
130.0 x 86.8 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust
VAG 42.3.9
Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

Island, MacCullam Lake

Lawren Harris
Island, MacCullam Lake, 1921
oil on burlap
76.0 x 96.7 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Transfer from Women's Auxiliary Provincial School Loan Scheme
VAG 65.23
Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

What it Means to be Canadian

Objective:

Students examine Emily Carr's paintings within the context of national identity.

Description of Activity:

Looking at works by members of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, students compose a letter to a friend or relative in their home country, describing what it means to be Canadian.

Duration:

1 session, 60 minutes

Background Information for Teachers:

One of Carr's most compelling written statements on art appeared in the McGill News in June 1929. Here she called for the formation of a uniquely Canadian art:

What are we Canadian artists of the west going to do with our art? We are young yet, and are only slowly finding a way, but are we obliged to bedeck ourselves in borrowed plumes and copy art born of other countries and not ours?

Carr was not alone in the search for a new visual language to express her sense of the land that she felt was unlike any other. In the early decades of the twentieth century, many artists shared this goal; the most prominent among them were members of the Group of Seven. Made up of seven male artists from Ontario, the Group of Seven sought to capture the spirit of the Canadian landscape in their work, through expressive colours and simplified forms that they believed reflected the essence of their subject.

Carr did not meet the Group of Seven members until 1927, when she went east to participate in an exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa. At that time she was already employing similar techniques in her own work. Her treatment of trees as emblematic of the land found a parallel in the paintings of the Group of Seven. This suggests that at the time, Canada's wilderness landscape provided the most vivid sense of what it was like to live in this country, an image that persists to this day.

Preparation for Teachers:

  • Examine Carr's Forest, British Columbia, 1931–1932, and Lawren Harris' Island, MacCullam Lake, 1921.
  • Read the excerpt (Appendix) that follows this activity, describing the influence of Lawren Harris on Carr's work. The two artists developed a close friendship after meeting in 1927. For many years, Carr and Harris wrote letters to each other, discussing their ideas about art and nationhood.

Materials for Students:

Process:

  • Show students reproductions of Carr's Forest, British Columbia, 1931–1932, and Lawren Harris' Island, MacCullam Lake, 1921.
  • Tell students about the Group of Seven and their relationship to Emily Carr.
  • Ask students to consider Carr's work and Harris' work from the perspective of what it means to be Canadian. What type of impression is created by their work? How is this different from the work of artists in other countries? What do these two paintings say about Canada?
  • Invite each student to write a letter to a friend or a relative in their home country, describing how Carr and Harris depicted Canada in their paintings.

Discussion:

  • Invite students to share their letters with the rest of the class. Does the image of Canada created by Carr and Harris correspond to their experience of this country?

Further Engagement:

Questions of identity and nationality continue to be of interest to Canadian artists. Invite students to find a contemporary artist whose work shows similar concerns to those of Harris and Carr, and have students share what they learn about this artist with the rest of the class. Suggestions: Liz Magor, Jack Shadbolt, Jeff Wall.

Appendix: quotes from Emily Carr