Curator's Statement

Curators Jay Stewart and Peter Macnair
Peter Macnair

My interest in Emily Carr's interpretations of Northwest Coast villages and totem poles dates back to December 1965. During my first week as assistant anthropologist at the (now) Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, colleagues introduced me to a huge collection of historic photographs of First Nations subjects.

Among the photographs was a print of Blunden Harbour, a remote Kwakwaka'wakw village on the central British Columbia coast. At that time the village was known to me only through Emily Carr's painting of the same title. Inscribed on the back was a notation by Willie Newcombe, confidante and handyman to Carr during her years as a landlady, indicating that his father, Dr. Charles F. Newcombe, had photographed the village in 1901. He went on to record that he loaned the print to Carr about 1930 and that she "painted Blunden Harbour from it . . . never having had an opportunity of visiting this village personally."

As I worked through the collection, I discovered Carr had used photographer Richard Maynard's 1884 view of Captain Gold's house as the basis for her painting House Front, Gold Harbour. Several other photographs, taken on Haida Gwaii, proved to be sources for Carr works depicting poles at Haina, Skidegate, Masset and Hiellen.

Hanging in my office at the time were two paintings of Alert Bay by F.M. Bell-Smith. One day, Kwagul chief Tommy Hunt commented on them. He recognized the locale but was puzzled by the rendering of a large canoe, which he identified as a hybrid so high and narrow it could never put safely to sea. I realized he had been reading the painting as if it were a photograph and he was perplexed by its lack of veracity.

Over the ensuing three or four years, these experiences led to in-depth examinations with First Nations people of both photographs and paintings.

The exercise was rewarding and revealing. Chief Bill Scow commented on his father's house and the carving of Dzunuk'wa at Gwa'yasdams village, both subjects of Carr paintings. Chief Peter Smith examined Walter J. Phillips's Raising a Zunuk and explained why, when he repositioned the houseposts, he placed oak barrels where the beams used to rest. Agnes Cranmer corrected Phillips and Carr's misidentification of the Thunderbird figure in the Alert Bay cemetery. Chief J.J. Wallas insisted that Carr's Zunoqua of the Cat Village was actually a male ancestor. Chief Tommy Hunt described chiefs being ejected from Wakas's house at Alert Bay via the Raven's projecting lower beak. Gloria Cranmer Webster provided an accurate description for Carr's Pow Wow Platform, Alert Bay. Chief Jack Peters, inspired by his viewing of Carr's painting on a television program, told stories about life in his father's gukwdzi (Big House) at T'sadzis'nukwaame'. Chief Arthur Dick identified the owner of both house and pole at 'Mi'mkwamlis featured in works by Carr and Phillips.

In 1966 Henry and Tony Hunt, carvers at the Royal British Columbia Museum, completed a replica of a Haida house frontal pole, popularly called "Weeping Woman of Tanoo." Charged with writing a descriptive museum label for the pole, I discovered, in pioneering ethnologist and professional artifact collector C.F. Newcombe's fieldnotes, that the image is neither weeping nor a woman. It is a mythic sea chief whose eyes fall out of their sockets each night and have to be reinserted by friends the next day. Carr featured this pole in both a watercolour sketch and a painted oil.

I was never able to do anything with my growing file of notes other than to direct a generation of students and scholars to Carr's use of photographs for some of her Haida paintings. When I was asked to curate an exhibition of Carr's work depicting First Nations subjects for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, I jumped at the chance. But I felt that both Carr and scholarship would be better served if the viewer was given an opportunity to compare Carr's work to that of several contemporaries who also painted the totem pole villages. As well, the voice of First Nations people had to be introduced through first-person testimony and anthropological records in order to contextualize the paintings and correct misinterpretations which were unwittingly introduced by the artists. Including contemporaneous photographs provides a vehicle for this voice and also presents a context for the art works beyond the confines of their frames, offering the viewer new insights into the depiction of Northwest Coast monumental sculpture by artists during the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Jay Stewart

It is, perhaps, unusual for an art exhibition to rely heavily on archival collections for both the works of art and the primary voices for the accompanying extensive text. Yet it was these very resources that intrigued me twenty years ago when I began to research an exhibit of the works of Walter J. Phillips. My grandfather had worked with Phillips at the Winnipeg Tribune newspaper, and our family owned several of the artist's works, one of which especially intrigued me-an untitled wood engraving of a Kwakwaka'wakw welcome figure. Researching the Phillips prints of First Nations subjects led me to the Glenbow Archives, where his sketchbooks, some correspondence, manuscripts and other files reside.

The opportunity to develop the topic for this exhibition, To the Totem Forests, gave me the chance to revisit the Phillips archival sources and to explore new ones, specifically those of Emily Carr, at the British Columbia Archives. Its remarkable collection of Carr field sketches in pencil, watercolour, and charcoal serve as the backbone of the Carr images in this exhibit.

Throughout the exhibition, we used the first-person voice whenever it was available, from primary sources--Carr's journals and correspondence, Phillips's sketchbooks and manuscripts, A. Y. Jackson's A Painter's Country, C. F. Newcombe's fieldnotes and correspondence-were the sources, where appropriate, for the label copy. I did not refer to published works because in those, their words had been edited by other people. Experience has taught me the importance of using primary sources, as only these can ensure that the quotes and context of quotes are original.

We are fortunate to know many Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka'wakw, Haida and Gitxsan people who provided personal information on the subjects of the works of art. Their voices, together with those of their ancestors from the ethnographic literature, provide counterpoint to the experiences and observations of the artists. The works of art are complemented by ethnohistoric photographs, providing the viewer with a reference to the original massive sculptures and two dimensional designs which were the inspiration for the artists represented in To the Totem Forests.

Peter Macnair's Biography - Jay Stewart's Biography

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