By Brad Simm
Most of us know that Emily Carr was a gifted Canadian painter from the West Coast. And that her Indigenous themes and landscapes drew the Group of Seven’s attention who, in turn, helped her become a national icon.
What some of don’t know is that Carr, a loner who considered herself an outcast, was a devout animal-lover who bred sheepdogs, owned numerous cats and dogs throughout her life along with her pet monkey, Woo, that she held precious.
Many of us know that Sheri-D Wilson is one of Calgary’s premier poets and spoken-word artists who’s revered nationally for her published works, performances and as an activist, educator and festival organizer. What many of us don’t know is Sheri-D is also an accomplished playwright who’s returning to that art form with a play about Emily Carr.
“It started when I had H1N1 [flu virus] about 15 years ago. I was reading Growing Pains [Emily Carr’s autobiography] and was delirious. I feel asleep and suddenly saw Emily Carr talking to her monkey, Woo. In my delirium I rolled over and wrote notes, starting this play. When I was less delirious I put in a drawer, forgot about it but then found it again when I was de-junking my house a couple years ago.”
Wilson then phoned Kate Newby, producer and general manager for Handsome Alice Theatre known for its progressive, feminist voice. Newby was more than happy to get behind the idea with Wilson who notes, laughing, that “Emily and Woo were both female!”
The play, called Love Letter To Emily C, is largely based on Carr’s endless stream of letters reflecting her epiphanies, good and bad. Wilson reveals that Carr’s story runs parallel to her own life, in which Wilson also had a pet monkey when she was a child that was exiled from her school and came to live with her.
“It’s all about being exiled, being an outsider, being thrown out, not being accepted by the establishment quo. It’s about always being told you’re weird and strange, always exploring a different path for yourself, and then people around you questioning, ‘What is that?’ Which is what happened to Emily Carr.”
In the play, Woo, as Carr’s close confidant, becomes a character engaged in a continuous dialogue with the artist that assesses all the rejections and then the opportunities, including the Group of Seven’s acceptance, which changed her life.
Not only poetic in its delivery, Wilson also says it’s “just visually beautiful with Emily Carr’s paintings projected onto the stage and as an immersive part of the production itself.
Sheri-D’s Love Letter To Emily C is a Handsome Alice production that runs from May 4-11 at the Big Secret Theatre in Arts Commons.