Helen and I monitored the woman’s slow, hobbled approach to our house from our nursery window. At the rate she was travelling, she wouldn’t be at the door for another half-hour.
“I think that’s the woman Mother hired,” said Helen.
“Yes, and she’s late,” I replied, glancing towards the clock on the mantelpiece; “It’s well past eleven.”
“You must be kind, Elsie. Mother says she’s coming from far away. And she limps; she’s injured.”
“Twaddle,” I said, crossing my arms. Had I known the woman would be late, I’d have finished my math.
“Hush, Elsie,” said Mother, entering our room and joining us at the window. In her hands were pieces of charcoal and our sketch pads; “Your teacher has travelled all over Europe. She will share her knowledge and expertise. I expect you to be courteous even if she may be a bit… eccentric.” Helen and I turned and gave Mother our full attention. “She’s a progressive painter who opened her own studio on West Broadway,” said Mother.
“Is that where you met her?” asked Helen.
“It’s one of the places I met her. She taught me at the Ladies’ Art Club in Vancouver.”
“You took art?” I sputtered.
“Elsie, that tone is unacceptable. Yes, I took lessons. One must never stop learning, young lady. The mind becomes soft, like the body, without purpose and exercise.”
“Why did you say she’s eccentric?” asked Helen.
“She was escorted from the Ladies’ Art Club after a single month of lessons.” Helen and I gasped.
“She was…,” I began.
“Released,” said Mother matter-of-factly; “She’s a strong, independent-thinking woman. I admire her.”
We looked at one another. Which one of us was going to ask, “Why was she released?” Mother raised her eyebrows and tilted her head. The conversation was over. She put down our art supplies and went downstairs.
Helen and I whipped our heads back towards the window. Our art teacher was closer by half. We could see her round, peaked face and short curly hair popping out from under a knitted, beige net cap. It hugged her head so closely she looked like a friar. She was dressed in a loose-fitting blue frock with two large front pockets. On her feet was a pair of laced leather boots. She tottered as she limped, appearing to be on the brink of falling over at any moment, “She seems a bit odd,” said Helen.
“Very,” I said.
Our teacher disappeared under the branches of the beech tree in front of our house. The warm autumn sun shone through the colouring leaves, and we could follow her progress. We expected her to make her way to the front door, but she detoured and went into our garden.
“What’s she doing?” I said, craning my neck and staring down.
“She’s bending over,” said Helen; “I think she’s picking something up.”
“It’s almost noon. Why isn’t she rushing up to the house?” I snipped.
A door creaked at the end of the hall from our nursery. Father was marching towards us with a rolled newspaper in his hand. Helen and I quickly turned our bottoms towards the window. Had he heard us speaking disrespectfully? “HelNelsie,” he said, a smile breaking across his face. I hated our nicknames; “Guess what’s written in the Vancouver Morning Sun? No need to answer, that’s a rhetorical question. Only answer questions that are questions.” Helen and I grinned. Father was a lawyer, “Remember this day, girls. October 14, 1912,” Father slapped the newspaper with a flick of his hand.
“What is it, Father?” I asked.
“Grand news,” he said; “An automobile has travelled across the whole of Canada.”
“An automobile?” said Helen.
“It says Thomas Wilby and his driver, Jack Haney, arrived in Vancouver from Halifax, having begun their journey on August 27, in a brand-new Reo. Isn’t that marvellous? I bet they hit a few bumps and swamps along the way. Still, the long road was travelled with great effort. A true testament to never giving up. The paper says they’ll be off to Victoria in a few days.”
“Can we go see the automobile?” I pleaded.
“Most certainly,” he said.
Father asked what we were up to. Helen and I grumbled, “Art.”
“Ah yes, the new art teacher, Miss Emily Carr. Your mother says she is quite remarkable. Quite fiesty.”
Helen and I opened our mouths, then shut them. Father still had the newspaper in his hand. He returned to his study when he heard the front door open. Mother was calling out to the garden. A few moments later, we heard voices in the foyer. Helen and I slipped out of the nursery and tiptoed over to the railing at the top of the stairs. Mother and Miss Carr were below, “So you found us.”
“It’s a good distance away from where I live,” said a sharp voice.
“How’s the gallery doing? I do love the work you brought back from France.”
Miss Carr coughed and coughed into her hanky. When she stopped, she wiped her lips and replied curtly, “Closed. No one bought my paintings. My attempt to enlighten colonials with the vivid colours of Fauvism failed.”
Miss Carr coughed again. Mother got the maid to fetch a glass of water and asked our teacher if she was well enough to complete the lesson, “Course I am. I’ve even got something for the girls to draw.” A black object was poking out of her front pocket.
“Very well, Miss Carr. The girls are expecting you upstairs.” Mother paused, “I will ask you to control yourself.”
“What do you mean, Mrs. MacGill?”
“Please refrain from smoking and cussing.”
“Smoking and…,” Miss Carr began, “You were a member of the Ladies’ Art Club.” Mother’s head tilted, “Yes, ma’am,” said our teacher.
Back in the nursery, Helen and I took up our positions at our desks. We stared wide-eyed at each other. Mother had hired a derelict teacher, a grievous sinner. We listened to the slow clip-click of Miss Carr’s boots on the foyer marble, followed by the quiet shuffle of her feet as she made her way up the carpeted stairs. “Good day,” she said, entering the nursery.
Helen and I jumped, “Good day, Ma’am.”
Miss Carr put down her handbag and surveyed the room. To Helen, she ordered that the windows be opened. To me, she asked for a bowl of fruit. I scurried downstairs to get something from the cook. I returned with red apples. “This is all you have? How common. Very well, it will have to do.” Miss Carr put the bowl on a side table, grabbed one of the apples, and took a bite; “First things first,” she said through a mouthful.
Shocked, Helen and I looked down at our desks. This woman was coarse and uncivil.
“What are your names and interests?”
“I’m Elsie and this is Helen,” I said, lifting my eyes to meet Miss Carr’s; “We enjoy the sciences.”
“Do you always let your sister speak for you?” said Miss Carr to Helen. Helen blushed. I clenched my fists; “Never mind. So you like science.” Miss Carr clopped around the room; “In my class, you will learn how to see the world. That is a science and an art.” Miss Carr pulled up a chair and continued to eat her apple. She was in no rush. As we waited, a warm October breeze filled the room with the smells of burnt sugar from our maple and the sweet peas growing below our window. Miss Carr’s frock fluttered. Another shock: the woman wasn’t wearing a petticoat or stockings. I could see her swollen leg. Helen saw it too. Miss Carr pulled her skirt up higher. “Curious bunch, aren’t you?”
“What happened, miss?” asked Helen.
“Helen, no!” I hissed.
“It’s all right. We should clear this up and then get to work. I was injured when a carriage ran over my foot.”
“That must have hurt terribly,” said Helen.
“It did. The pain was so consuming, I had to have it amputated.”
“The foot!” I said, knocking my chair back to stand. I had to see Miss Carr’s boot.
“No, child, just the big toe.”
“That’s why you walk funny,” said Helen.
“I walk the way I walk. It’s not funny.” Miss Carr lowered her skirt and tossed her apple core out the window. She limped up to our desk, pulled a black object from her pocket, and placed it gently on the table, “We’re going to draw this poor creature. It’s not a dead crow,” she said in a whisper; “It’s a baby raven. The West Coast natives I lived with told me the raven moves the seasons, and the day to night. Ravens can fill your head with ideas.” Miss Carr was throwing her hands wildly in the air.
“Poor thing,” said Helen. I grimaced and thought it was disgusting. I didn’t want to draw a dead bird. Miss Carr eyed me, “I’m going to lay it out,” she said, splaying out the wings, its tiny toes in the air, “Art is more than drawing what you see. It needs to convey feeling and meaning; to draw the bird, you have to understand the purpose of what you see. This is the keel of the sternum,” she said, pointing to the breast bone; “Note how it is shaped. Look at the feathers and their position on the wing.” Then she pointed to the toes, “These are called phalanges. The toe at the back is called the hallux.” Miss Carr leaned in towards me. She smelled of smoke, “What would the hallux be on the human body, Miss Elsie?”
“I know,” said Helen, raising her hand.
“I asked Elsie. I’ll give you a clue. It’s for balance,”
I studied the composition of the bird. The wings were for flight. The three front toes were for landing and curling around a branch. The back one was for balance, “It’s a big toe.”
A disturbing laugh, followed by a fit of coughing, filled the air, “There’s lots of ways to lose your balance,” sputtered Miss Carr; “You can lose a toe, your mind, your business…”
“Miss Carr, are you well?” asked Helen.
“Remember this bird, Elsie,” said Miss Carr, as a gust blew in through the window. Her hair flapped.
I wanted to ask which one.
Emily Carr (1871-1945) is one of Canada’s esteemed artists. She studied in the United States and overseas. In 1903, Emily Carr was diagnosed with “hysteria” and was placed in a sanatorium in Suffolk, England. She underwent several forms of electroshock therapy, and the amputation of her big toe. Upon returning to Canada, Emily Carr taught art lessons in Vancouver and opened a gallery. The MacGill family hired Emily Carr to teach their daughters. The full impact Emily Carr had on the children is unknown. However, Elsie MacGill, “Queen of the Hurricanes,”became the first female aeronautical engineer in Canada. She designed and built Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during the Second World War. Helen MacGill earned her Ph.D in Sociology.