Head To Whistler For An Iconic Art Tour

9 August 2016

The Audain Art Museum is a notable newcomer to the diverse arts and cultural offerings in one of Canada's adventure capitals, Whistler, writes Lisa Richardson.

 The Crazy Stair by Emily Carr (Image: Tourism Whistler)

I used to work with Emily Carr’s nephew.

He was in his 80s, a glorious curmudgeon, teaching skiing at Whistler Blackcomb as he had for several decades. Sometimes, media would want to interview him. “Why?” he’d growl. “Because I’m old?”

More like notorious.

When he died, at the age of 93, his family asked, in lieu of flowers, that mourners make donations to the SPCA, listen to Ella Fitzgerald and lift a glass of red wine - as fitting as it gets.

Russ had been given a sketch of Carr’s at some point in his life, but had gotten rid of it, not having much sentiment or fondness for a crotchety old aunt.

There are not many people who can claim to treating a Carr artwork with such irreverence.

 The exterior of the new Audain Art Museum in Whistler. (Image: Tourism Whistler/Justa Jeskova)

A Canadian icon, her work is part of the nation’s canon – having it hanging in Whistler’s newest arts installation, the exquisite Audain Art Museum, has just amped up Whistler’s cultural offerings to a drop-everything-and-get-over-here level.

The stunning facility will host three visiting exhibits a year, while also housing a permanent collection of almost 200 pieces. A visual history of West Coast art, compiled by collectors Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa, it’s one of the largest collections of Northwest Coast First Nations masks in existence, a who’s who of contemporary Canadian photoconceptualists and a career-long look at Emily Carr’s work.

 Another aspect of Audain Art Museum, Whistler. (Image: Tourism Whistler/Justa Jeskova)

A turn-of-the-century Modernist, Emily Carr was based in Victoria, and she visited the Whistler area once, in May 1933, taking a month-long train expedition to tackle a new artistic challenge – mountain scenery. After visiting with friends in the Squamish Valley, Carr’s train trip took her through Whistler (then Alta Lake), to Lillooet, returning to Seton Lake and Pemberton to explore, hike and sketch.

 Artworks within the Audain. (Image: Tourism Whistler/Justa Jeskova)

She wrote of her obsession to capture the mountains at close range:

“mountains towering – snow mountains, blue mountains, green mountains, brown mountains, tree-covered, barren rock, cruel mountains with awful waterfalls and chasms and avalanches, tender mountains all shining, spiritual peaks way up among the clouds.”

And of her struggles: “Oh, these mountains! They won’t bulk up. They are thin and papery. At ’em again, old girl, they’re worth the big struggle.” In the end, she decided the works “ought not to go out as pictures, finished. I feel them incomplete studies, just learners not show-ers.”

The 40 or 60 sketches and paintings from that trip weren’t dated or signed, and many were given away or left with family – some to, apparently, be discarded.

 Visitors peruse the artworks within Audain Art Museum. (Image: Tourism Whistler/Justa Jeskova)

Happily, the Audain’s 20-piece personal collection of reverently acquired art, the most significant private collection of the artist’s work in Canada, is now available to everyone, including a 1928 Emily Carr painting, The Crazy Stair, which Audain acquired in 2013 for CAD$3,393,000 – the most ever paid for an Emily Carr and the highest amount paid for a work by a Canadian woman artist.

Long a place for radical self-expression and epic struggles, especially if you like getting sweaty and adrenalised, Whistler’s growing appreciation for art and culture is a nice counterbalance to all that adventure and nature.

 Landscapes at Audain Art Museum. (Image: Tourism Whistler/Justa Jeskova)

The Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre and the new Audain Art Museum are a one-two punch of must-see galleries for any Pacific North West visitor.

Well worth the visit to Whistler, alone. Or, you could head to Paris, where the d’Orsay Museum will include Emily Carr in a 2017 exhibition. But hey, we’ll always have Paris. Right now, Whistler is where it’s at.

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Lisa Richardson

A Bris Vegas girl who got hooked on snow, Lisa Richardson is now based in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia, Canada, where she writes, blogs, mountain bikes, skis, climbs, and requests deliveries of Vegemite and Violet Crumbles from anyone who visits. She's always up for an adventure - the dirtier and more self-propelled, the better.