Lost and Found: Emily Carr’s Sister and I in Alaska

Cover of Sister and I in Alaska. Jacket design by Peter Cocking. Artwork by Emily Carr. 

When Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871–1945) went to Alaska in 1907, she experienced a pivotal moment in her career. With a diary in her pocket, and her sister Alice in tow, Carr recorded the events that would later influence her artistic style. Today, fans of her work can explore the details of this most important and life-changing journey, 108 years later.

Carr’s diary — published in 2014 as Sister and I in Alaska — is a charming book that offers readers a glimpse into the humour and talent of a 36-year-old Carr. Believed to have been lost for more than 60 years, the diary was discovered by Canadian author David P. Silcox in 2011. Silcox was visiting Tom Daly, Jr. — grandson of Carr’s late friend Katherine Daly — when Tom brought out a diary he had inherited from his father. Realizing the significance of the diary, Silcox arranged to have it published.

The original journal — a dark red “mapping book” — chronicles the sisters’ trip to Alert Bay, Skagway, Juneau, and Sitka in the summer of 1907. Short written accounts of their daily adventures are combined with watercolours depicting the characters and scenery they encountered along the way. Carr’s memories are comical and amusing, showcasing her creativity as both writer and artist. In one entry, Carr recalls taking a treacherous hike up a mountain in Sitka. She and Alice squeeze under logs, climb trees, scale cliffs, and shed their heavy clothes before collapsing in pure exhaustion. The illustrations accompanying this entry show Carr’s more playful side — including a whimsical bear that has dressed itself in the various garments the women have left behind. 


Emily Carr, excerpt from Sister and I in Alaska 

Carr was born in Victoria, British Columbia in 1871. Although she received early training as an artist at the California School of Design in San Francisco and the Westminster School of Art in London, she had not yet established a definitive personal style by 1907. Sister and I in Alaska features a comprehensive introduction by Silcox, exploring this background. Silcox also discusses the events that led to Carr’s artistic awakening in Alaska — including the totem poles and Northwest coast culture that both fascinated and inspired her. As Silcox writes, “This trip to Alaska, miraculously, did begin to transform her.” 

In her diary, Carr has illustrated a totem pole that she encountered in Sitka. In her painting, she stares in wide-eyed awe, head tilted back as she takes in its monumental size. As with her other paintings, the colours are vivid and the facial expressions are precise. As Silcox says, “Her lengthy training as an artist had been particularly strong in the tradition of English watercolour painting, which is what made her illustrations so sure, definitive, and realistic. The same sureness and originality are displayed in the diary.” 

For years, the public had been aware of the significance of Carr’s Alaska trip, despite not having the diary to prove it. In 2006, the National Gallery of Canada — in conjunction with the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) — organized Emily Carr: New Perspectives. The exhibition featured approximately 200 works from the NGC, the VAG, and various other Canadian institutions. In the accompanying catalogue, authors Jay Stewart and Peter Macnair shared the essay Reconstructing Emily Carr in Alaska, which explored details of the Alaska trip and its importance on the evolution of Carr’s style.

Most recently, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery co-organized the exhibition From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia, which highlights Carr’s fascination with the landscape and Indigenous art of the Pacific Northwest. On view at the AGO until August 9, 2015, the exhibition features nearly 100 works by Carr — including works from the National Gallery’s collection — along with more than 40 historical Indigenous artifacts. Also on view is a fascinating array of archival materials, including the original Sister and I in Alaska diary. 

Like the original, the published diary is both informative and unique. In addition to the introduction by Silcox, the book features a letter written by Tom Daly, Jr.’s father, Tom Daly, to his family, following a visit with Alice in 1947. In the letter, Daly describes Alice’s home and the various Carr paintings that decorate the space. His captivation with the home, along with his detailed descriptions, add another interesting element to the book. 


Emily Carr, excerpt from Sister and I in Alaska

Sister and I in Alaska is a great resource for fans of Carr’s work, as well as anyone interested in the impact of life experiences on an artist’s evolution. As Silcox concludes, “What we have in this lost diary, now rediscovered, is the account by an intrepid Canadian artist of a trip that changed her profoundly.” 

Sister and I in Alaska is published by Figure 1, and is available from the National Gallery of Canada Bookstore. Visitors to the NGC can also see several Carr paintings from Canada's national collection, including Autumn in France  (1911), The Welcome Man (1913), and Heina (1928), currently on view in the Canadian and Aboriginal Art galleries.

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