Edith Heath and Emily Carr: From the Earth brings together the work of two artists whose art was profoundly influenced by the land and landscape—its colours, light and materials. Emily Carr (1871–1945) and Edith Heath (1911–2005) never met, but both were modernist women living on the West Coast who built careers in the creative arts that spoke to their time and place. This project builds on an ongoing program of exhibitions that offer an opportunity to consider the art of Emily Carr in a different light. Some of the exhibitions have focused on directly shared histories or on stylistic affinities, while others have pointed to the significance of Carr’s influence on modern and contemporary artists.
Edith Heath was born in Ida Grove, Iowa, in 1911 to a settler family from Denmark. She was trained as a teacher and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-1930s. She moved with her husband, Brian, to San Francisco in 1942 and studied ceramics at the California School of Fine Arts for two years; Emily Carr attended this same school from 1890 to 1893. While studying, Heath also taught art at a progressive cooperative school. During this period, the Heaths spent weekends exploring clay pits in California, and Edith Heath conducted independent research on clays, glazes and their chemistry. This commitment to place and process shaped her practice for the remainder of her life. The works selected for this exhibition date from Heath’s early professional career, from the mid-1940s, through to the maturation of her practice, in the mid-1960s. It was during this time that she began her annual summer journeys to Vancouver, first to teach ceramic design and chemistry at the University of British Columbia (1951 and 1952) and then as a summer pilgrimage that also included a stop at the legendary International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, which brought together progressive thinkers and makers in the fields of design and commerce.
Emily Carr was born in Victoria, BC, in 1871 to a settler family from England. The works selected for this exhibition date from the 1930s. They emerged after a long hiatus from painting when Carr, inspired by a reinvigorated engagement with the forest, initiated a fruitful period of intense experimentation with new materials and techniques.
Carr’s 1911 French-inspired shift to using oil paints, bold colours, short, flat brushstrokes and expressive compositions gave her art a new energy and purpose. This bold experimentation set the stage for a further material transformation in the 1930s, when Carr returned to painting and developed what would become her mature expression of the forest landscape. This was achieved through the use of materials that shared a fluidity, translucency and sense of movement that closely matched her experience of the forest. She was, by this time, no longer interested in a simple documentary image of the forest but rather sought to produce a work that took on the character and form of the forest itself. Her new materials—manila paper, white house paint, oil paints, charcoal and gasoline—allowed for the production of evocative images captured quickly while in the forest, at a scale and with a sense of spontaneity that mirrored that of forest life itself. Edith Heath and Emily Carr: From the Earth includes outstanding examples of Carr’s forest pictures produced in oil and gasoline on paper and in charcoal and oil on paper; an additional selection is focused on her oil on canvas paintings that mark the impact of human presence in the forest.
If Emily Carr’s underlying motivation and commitment lay in the forest, then for Edith Heath it was the clay under her feet that provided the catalyst and the means for her work. From early on, Heath explored the ubiquitous material of clay with intensity, passion and depth: where it came from, its properties, how it had been used throughout history, how it reacted to temperature and how different types produced different aesthetic qualities. It is this background, rooted in science and cultural awareness, along with her innate sense of form, that set Heath apart from the other potters who proliferated in post-war North America. Heath recognized that clay not only has a rich and compelling material presence but that it is also closely linked to human presence in the natural world—since the earliest times, societies have been founded and prospered in close proximity to clay deposits. Clay is, as Heath explains, “the oldest medium in the arts because the fired pots didn’t rot or deteriorate. Our history really is traced in clay.” Like Carr, Heath in her early years as an artist travelled up and down the West Coast, in her case to study clay formations: “I was looking for a clay that nobody knew anything about, that had unique properties that I could utilize and develop, that would be expressive of the region. So I began to work with California clays.” The landscape of California became the defining principle of Heath’s work—the materials, the colours, the shapes and even the lifestyle. It gave form and meaning to her ceramics and guided the principles of her practice. The exhibition focuses on Heath’s commitment to materials, to her region and to a human-centred design that was in direct communication with nature.
Organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery and curated by Guest Curators Jennifer M. Volland and Jay Stewart, and Bruce Grenville, Senior Curator
Brian & Edith Heath Foundation Kimberly Cudney and Fraser Phillips