Go to Homepage   Susan Vreeland: The Forest Lover


Crescent Blues Book ViewsViking/Penguin Group (Hardcover), ISBN 0-670-03267-0

Caught in three worlds, I looked out of the 747's window. I gazed down on Utah or perhaps Nevada at the snow-covered granite mountain peaks. Inside of the plane, I sat suspended between space and earth, surrounded by familiar artifacts -- magazines, seats, purse, and best of all, the sturdy presence of my husband, squashed into the too-small airplane seat beside me.

Book: susan vreeland, the forest lover
I opened Susan Vreeland's latest book The Forest Lover and traveled into yet another space and time where I met Emily Carr and her beloved British Columbia West Coast wilderness.

Her existence in three cultures and her journey to find her art dovetailed comfortably with my suspension in space between origin and destination. Looking back, I can't imagine a more appropriate book to read in an airplane as I fled a Midwest winter and made my pilgrimage to worship Arizona's desert sun.

Once again, Vreeland researches and imagines the "what ifs" as well as the life of an artist, then spins her fiction based on facts and fantasy. She twists a few truths, yet remains loyal to the era, the culture, and the essence of Emily Carr, an artist and a woman who spent her life capturing on canvas the vanishing culture of the American Indian.

Raised in the Victorian era, Emily fills the role of the family maverick. Emily finds respite from the era's repression in watercolor drawings and uncivilized nature. Teaching art to wealthy matrons provides her passage into the wilderness where she sees her first totem pole and realizes that her art training in London did not prepare her for the task she longs to undertake. Emily rushes to capture the primitive Indian artifacts on canvas before white men Christianize the savages and tear down their totems.

Where once art offered an alternative to a repressive lifestyle, her ignorance restricts her art. A year in France introduces her to Les Fauves, "…wild beasts, the critics call them, for their wild colors, but they're not accepted, and the Cubists less."

She studies and spends a summer painting with Frances Hodgkins. When Emily returns to British Columbia, her art and her heart prove eons ahead of the local upper crust. The nabobs ridicule her, while her family encourages her to abandon her passion. Instead, Emily removes herself from civilization, lives a reclusive life shared only with animals and a man/child who was abused by his Christian missionary parents for his love of Indians. After her work wins the recognition of major international art critics, her family finally begins to accept her.

At times, Vreeland's prose displays a Victorian flourish. At others, it moves to a primitive beat. But she always knows just the right nuance to reinforce the triumphs, challenges, defeats, successes and the longings of a woman who faced down the world of society, the unknowns of the Indian world, and the ignorance of the art world.

The maps on the flyleaves add understanding for the setting and the artist's travels. At the same time, the samples of Carr's art studding the text demonstrate the artist's growth and change through her courageous and unusual life.

Dawn Goldsmith

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