Following in a hero’s footsteps sometimes means filling some pretty big shoes.
Sooke artist and writer Sheila Thomas wants to fill those shoes as she prepares to live the life of Canadian art icon Emily Carr for a year.
It’s a project that’s been with Thomas for years. She’s always loved Emily Carr because the artist chose an authentic life for herself despite the ridicule she faced.
“I started to read Carr’s books and in them she talked about the drudgery of everyday life, and the necessity to run a bed and breakfast when all she wanted to do was paint. It painted a picture of me,” Thomas, 55, said.
Thomas’ idea germinated when she took an art class with Nicholas Pearce last year with the hopes of painting Carr. There was a problem, though. No colour photo of Carr existed.
So Thomas did what she does best: came up with a creative alternative. She would rent a costume, pose as Emily Carr, have a friend take photos, and paint from that. She succeeded and the piece was shown in the About Face art show in Sidney last spring.
Now Thomas is painting a canvas for her life and will live the life of Emily Carr for one year travelling B.C. in the artist’s footsteps.
Thomas is converting a small school bus into a home in the West Coast style of Emily Carr. She plans to hit the road with her easel, brushes, paint, and her 75-pound poodle, Stroodle, early next year. Meanwhile, she’s also working on a play about Emily Carr.
“I’ve never done anything like this in the past,” she said. “I don’t think I’m too crazy.”
“I think at the heart of every creative person, they want to have time to do what makes them happy. That’s what it’s all about.”
Jan Ross, curator of the Emily Carr House in Victoria, said it’s not unusual for people to follow in the steps of Carr, or at least make her a subject of intense study.
Over the years, artists have retraced Carr’s steps, written books, and in one case learned to read by studying the artist’s writings.
“There are so many points of contemporary connectivity with Emily Carr. She was an environmentalist, feminist, and her connection with Indigenous people is so deep,” Ross said.
Thomas is drawn to Carr not just through her artwork, but her eccentricity.
“She was her own woman in a time when you weren’t allowed to have a voice,” Thomas said. “She poo-pooed society and the social status.”
Thomas hopes to hit the road in her refurbished school bus – nicknamed Klee Wyck after Carr’s book – complete with kitchen, bathroom, seating area, toilet, shower and solar panels – sometime in January.
She’ll visit communities, talk about Carr to anyone who will listen, visit schools, and teach art classes.
There’s one thing she won’t do: dress as Emily Carr.
“I’m not that crazy,” Thomas said.
Emily Carr at a glance
• Born Dec. 31, 1871 in Victoria, B.C.
• Studies at California School of Design at 18
• Visits several southern Kwakiutl villages in 1908
• Participates in National Gallery of Canada exhibition
• Klee Wyck published in 1941
• Died March 2, 1945 in Victoria, B.C.