VIFF: Iconic B.C. artist Emily Carr’s life, in her words, depicted in Winds of Heaven
By JOHN MACKIE, Vancouver Sun, October 12, 2010

VANCOUVER — Emily Carr is B.C.’s most iconic artist. But her legendary eccentricities tend to overshadow the real person, which Michael Ostroff was well aware of when he began work on a new film about Carr, Winds of Heaven.

“Most people think of her as an irascible old woman with a monkey who painted the trees, you know, and I wanted to delve much deeper into that personality,” says Ostroff, whose film made its debut at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, and will be shown today at 1 p.m….(read more)

“… I love the contrapuntal structure of your movies – and you’ve gone farther than ever with this one.  The narrative seems to be creating itself spontaneously, so the movie has a lovely “natural” flow, but at the same time there are the delights of the deep structure – the fugal counterpoint – in how your themes progress and comment on each other.  Your movies wear their structure so gracefully that one doesn’t feel ever overwhelmed or beaten about the head with a theme or an idea.  For example, your use of trees in “Winds of Heaven” – trees as raw material for commerce or art – trees as a silent commentary on the passage of time and the encroachment of immigrant Canada on the First Nations – and then to realize that the native carver we’ve seen shaping the tree is the descendent of the Russ family, and the way that realization closes a circle of time like the clasp on a bracelet, while at the same time proving that First Nations culture has defied Carr’s own assumptions and survived…..this is Joycean richness.  And it’s always going on, ultimately uniting all the themes in the movie and making us reflect on how all issues ultimately touch.”

– Stephen Hatfield, composer.

To research and write the 90-minute script required a lengthy reading list of books, articles and first hand accounts. Susan Crean’s The Laughing One: A Journey to Emily Carr (HarperCollins, 2001) was the most valuable book to me book in terms of the intellectual and political context of the film.  Gerta Moray’s lavishly illustrated Unsettling Encounters: First Nations Imagery in the Art of Emily Carr (UBC Press, 2006) helped me shape the reexamination of Carr’s achievements. This is a glorious book to look through with the added incentive of Gerta’s cogent insights and fresh observations.

Native critic and cultural commentator Marcia Crosby has been critiquing Carr’s reputation for a number of years.  Her contribution to Emily Carr: New Perspectives on A Canadian Icon (D & M Publishers, 2006) titled “A Chronology of Love’s Contingencies” is a mature, complex and personal continuation of her on-going assessment of Carr’s legacy, begun in 1990 with the seminal article “Construction of the Imaginary Indian” published in Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art (Talon Books, 1991).

Emily Carr: New Perspectives on A Canadian Icon also includes Charlie Hill’s incisive article Backgrounds in Canadian Art: The 1927 Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art:  Native and Modern.

Of course Emily Carr’s writings form the structure of the film. The good fortune is that D & M Publishers (formerly Douglas & McIntyre) have kept them all in print in lovingly produced trade paperbacks, complete with new introductions.  The Carr books I most relied on for the script were Hundreds and Thousands:  The Journals of Emily Carr (first published more than 20 years after Carr’s death in 1966); Klee Wyck Growing Pains, The Book of Small, The Heart of the Peacock and The House of All Sorts. Important lectures delivered by Carr can be found in Fresh-Seeing: Two Addresses by Emily Carr. (Clarke, Irwin, 1972) and in Susan Crean’s Opposite Contraries The Unknown Journals of Emily Carr & Other Writing (D & M Publishers, 2003) which includes her 1913 Lecture on Totems.

There are two standard biographies that provide a basic structure to Carr’s life.  Paula Blanchard’s The Life of Emily Carr (D & M Publishers 1987) and Maria Tippett’s Emily Carr A Biography (Stoddart, 1979) cover much of the same ground, though the former is supportive and understanding of Carr’s travails, while Tippett is more aggressive in questioning elements of Carr’s life and at times, Tippett can be quite harsh in her assessment of Carr’s life.

For an insight into the Native People’s in BC, I relied on some basic histories starting with George Woodcock’s British Columbia: A History of the Province (D & M Publishers, 1990).

For details of the rights of the First Nations and their struggle for justice I turned to Terry Glavin’s most readable A Death Feast in Dimlahand (New Star Books 1998), Karen Duffek’s Robert Davidson: The Abstract Edge (UBC & National Gallery, 2004), Daniel Francis’ Copying People – Photographing British Columbia’s First Nations (Fifth House, 1996), Deborah Doxator’s Fluffs and Feathers (Woodland Cultural Centre, 1992) Douglas Cole and Ira Chaikin’s An Iron Hand Upon The People (D & M Publishers, 1990), John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce (Vintage Canada, 2006), Sandra Dyck’s M.A. Thesis These Things Are Our Totems: Marius Barbeau and the Indigenization of Canadian Art and Culture in the 1920’s and her contribution in Edwin Holgate (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2005) titled A “New Country for Canadian Art”: Holgate and Barbeau in Gitxsan Territory. And Eden Robinson’s novel dark and funny Monkey Beach (Random House, 2001) offered a sense of the contemporary and community.

The classic texts that are must reading when dipping into art history of this period are Charlie Hill’s The Group of Seven, Art for a Nation (McClelland & Stewart, 1995) named as one of the 100 Most Important Canadian books and George MacDonald’s Haida Monumental Art (UBC Press, 1983). I also found The Victorian Painter’s World (Sutton Publishing, 1990) by Paula Gillett to be an extraordinary study of the obstacles facing women painters in the late 19th and early twentieth century.

Doris Shadbolt’s works Emily Carr (D & M Publishers, 1990) and The Art of Emily Carr (D & M Publishers, 1979) were among the first serious investigations of Carr’s art and although some critics have taken issue with her conclusions, they remain valuable studies. Another early work in the Carr bibliography, which I particularly found helpful (despite some obvious factual errors), is Charles Taylor’s Six Journeys: A Canadian Pattern (Anansi, 1977) which includes a thoughtful assessment of Carr as a conservative in the Canadian tradition.

A number of Carr’s friends wrote memoirs and appreciations which have encouraged the public persona and myth of Carr.  Among them are Edythe Hembroff-Schleicher’s M.E. A Portrait of Emily Carr (Toronto: Clark Irwin, 1969) and Emily Carr The Untold Story (Hancock Publishers, 1978) and Doreen Walker’s collection of Carr letters, Dear Nan: Letters of Emily Carr, Nan Cheney, and Humphrey Toms, (UBC Press, 1990).

My first encounter with Walt Whitman was, like Carr’s, in F.B. Housser’s A Canadian Art Movement:  The Story of the Group of Seven (Macmillan Company, 1926 and reprinted in 1974). One of Carr’s Leaves of Grass (she owned several) was published by the Modern Library.

I also relied on many, many newspaper accounts and reports of Carr’s activities including those by Robert Amos, Ira Dilworth, Lawren Harris, Sarah Milroy, Graham McInnes, James Nesbitt; there are too many to list here but for those interested in a very thorough bibliography, Emily Carr: New Perspectives on A Canadian Icon (D & M Publishers, 2006) is the book for you.