The Emily Carr House, James Bay: The Artist's Haunt

It's amazing what can result from searching the word "laundromat" on your smartphone.

Having been in Canada for a week, it's time to wash some clothing and there's no way I'm paying the sky-high rates of my hotel's laundry service.

So I run a search on the neighbourhoods near the downtown core of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. I'm soon sipping a locally roasted coffee in a hip cafe next to a laundromat in the suburb of James Bay, as my clothing goes through the suds.

This is not an onerous chore. I like using local laundromats when I travel. There's something soothing about taking time out of the sightseeing routine while your laundry turns, and you inevitably get to meet locals as you do.

In this case, I meet up with an unforgettable local, though one who's been dead for 70 years: Emily Carr. The Emily Carr House, a museum devoted to an apparently well-loved local artist of whom I've never heard, is located a block away from where I'm sitting. So after the tumble dryer's done its work, I head there to learn more.

Like most of the homes in this pretty, quiet waterside district, the house is an attractive timber structure built in the 19th century. 

It looks like it would be the abode of a genteel conservative, but Emily Carr was anything but that. Carr (1871-1945) was a rebel to the art establishment of early 20th century Victoria, applying the impressionist influences of her studies in Paris to the primeval forests of Vancouver Island.

Not only was she ahead of her time in terms of style, but also formed a long relationship with the original inhabitants of the island. From the 1890s onward she visited native peoples living within the greenery, taking inspiration from their cultures. 

She also absorbed their impressive surrounds, representing the trees in her art as great sweeps and curves of vivid green.

It was only later in her life, in the 1920s, that the disdain of the art world melted and Carr received recognition as an early modernist artist. More respectful public attitudes toward Canada's first peoples also cast her early interest in a good light, and she became a local hero.

Luckily her childhood home survived, providing a shrine for admirers to visit. Though she often travelled, studying art in such centres as San Francisco, London and Paris, Carr's sisters retained the house for many years and it remained a touchstone for the artist.

The house seems an attraction in itself, a warm, cosy residence with a series of rooms full of period knick-knacks, including lamps, tea caddies, vintage clocks and an old Remington typewriter. 

A bronze statue of an aged Emily Carr depicts her as stooped but focused, grasping pencil and sketchbook in readiness to create. Nearby is a copy of her book The House of All Sorts, an autobiographical work filled with stories about the tenants of the boarding house she once ran.

In the sitting room, the documentary Bone Wind Fire plays in a loop, linking the work of Carr with that of American Georgia O'Keeffe and Mexican Frida Kahlo, all ground-breaking North American artists of the early 20th century.

There's something delightful about discovering the work of an influential artist I'd been unaware of, and in this room I finally get to see a reproduction of one of her paintings. 

Set in a forest, great curtains of greenery loop and swirl forth from the tree trunks, as if trying to escape from the frame. It's an extraordinary capture of primal, overwhelming nature, even more impressive for weaving its spell above a mantelpiece decorated with small ceramic dogs.

Carr once said, "I was convinced that the old way of seeing was inadequate". Her art proves that she found a better way.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

canada.travel

GETTING THERE

Air Canada flies from Sydney via Vancouver to Victoria, Canada. Phone 1300 655 767, aircanada.com 

STAYING THERE

Fairmont Empress, 721 Government St, Victoria. Glamorous classic hotel on the water's edge. Rooms from $C215 per night. fairmont.com/empress-victoria

Hotel Rialto, 653 Pandora Ave, Victoria. Comfortable accommodation in a central location. From $C115 per night. hotelrialto.ca

SEE+DO

Emily Carr House, 207 Government St, James Bay, is open from May to September, entry $C6.75. emilycarr.com

DINING THERE

Discovery Coffee, 281 Menzies St, James Bay. discoverycoffee.com

Heron Rock Bistro, 435 Simcoe St, James Bay. heronrockbistro.ca

Blue Crab Seafood House, 146 Kingston St, James Bay. bluecrab.ca

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