Emily Carr has been one of my favorite painters ever since I found her work. Oddly enough, I found it through her writing. Browsing in a second-hand bookstore I came across one of the books she wrote about her life, and bought it on a whim. When I read it I found myself drawn to the woman who wrote so truthfully, yet sparely, about her life as a woman and as an artist.
Recently I re-read her House of All Sorts, in which she talks about the conflict between earning the money she needed to live and creating the art she loved. The House was meant to be the answer, the place where she would live and have her studio, and there was room for tenants whose rent would help her support herself. Instead a great deal of her energy went to support the house and her tenants. Though she talks about it with calm and humour, it was a very difficult time in her life. She wrote:
All the twenty-two years I lived in that house the Art part of me ached. It was not a bit the sort of studio I had intended to build. My architect had been as far from understanding the needs of an artist as it would be possible to believe. The people of Victoria strongly disapproved of my painting because I had gone from the old conventional way. I had experimented. Now I paused. I wished my pictures did not have to face the insulting eyes of my tenants. It made me squirm. The pictures themselves squirmed me in their own right too. They were always whispering, “Quit, quit this; come back to your own job!” But I couldn’t quit: I had this house and I had no money. A living must be squeezed from somewhere.
And that is the heart of the dilemma. A living must be squeezed from somewhere, at least until it is possible to live on the proceeds of your art. Or of whatever it is you would prefer to be doing, whatever it is that you are committed to. Sometimes that requires sacrifice and compromise. But having to compromise does not mean that you should give up.
The lesson I took from Emily Carr is this: Do not give up, even when you have to make compromises, even when you are fighting to be accepted. She did not. She reached out to the people of Victoria and explained what she was doing, why she was creating the art she was. She made a stand for tolerance and for learning new ways of seeing. She found ways and time to paint, and her work became more and more powerful. Instead of being beaten down, she grew.
The right path isn’t always the easy one.