See her autobiography, Growing Pains (1946).
Emily Carr was born and raised in Victoria, British Columbia, then a small town and quite isolated from centres of culture on the East Coast. She was brought up in a house commissioned by her father, a prosperous merchant, and now known as the Emily Carr House. She had a middle class upbringing in "a disciplined and orderly household where English manners and values were maintained. Her parents died when she was in her early teens, and on the advice of a friend she moved to San Francisco when she reached 18 to study art at the California School of Design. In 1893 she returned to Victoria, establishing a studio in the family barn where she painted and offered children's art classes. Four years later she travelled to England to enrich her studies, where she spent time at the Westminster School of Art in London but left due to an illness. Searching for a healthier climate, she proceeded to study at various studio schools in Cornwall, southwest England; Bushey, Hertfordshire, just north of London; San Francisco again; and elsewhere. She returned to British Columbia in 1905. In 1910, she spent a year studying art at the Académie Colarossi in Paris and elsewhere in France before moving back to British Columbia permanently in 1912.
She was most heavily influenced by the landscape and First Nations cultures of British Columbia and Alaska. Her first real exposure to and inspiration from them came during a visit to a mission school beside the Nuu-chah-nulth community of Ucluelet in 1899. Three years later, she was inspired by a visit to Skagway and began to paint the totem poles of the coastal Kwakwaka'wakw, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit and other communities, in an attempt to record and learn from as many as possible. In 1913 she was obliged by financial considerations to return permanently to Victoria after a few years in Vancouver. Influenced by styles such as Post-impressionism and Fauvism, her work was alien to those around her and remained unknown to and unrecognized by the greater art world for many years. Having "produced a substantial body of distinguished work, but dispirited by the absence of effective encouragement and support, she gave up painting in her early 40s, and for more than a decade she worked as a potter, dog breeder and boarding house landlady.
In the 1920s Carr came into contact with members of the Group of Seven, "then the leading art group in English-speaking Canada" whose "avowed intention [was] to produce a distinctly Canadian art" . This came about when an ethnologist heard about her paintings and mentioned her to Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, who invited her to participate in an exhibition titled Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern. He arranged a railway pass for her to cross the county, so she was able to travel to Ontario for the show in 1927, where she met members of the Group of Seven, including Lawren Harris, whose support was invaluable. The artists immeidately accepted her, a middle-aged woman from unfashionable Victoria, as an artist of great power and of equal stature to them. She was invited to submit her works for inclusion in a Group of Seven exhibition, the beginning of her long and valuable association with the Group. This approval from her peers, combined with her "passionate search for romantic self-expression" , led to a renewal of her interest in painting and the "period of mature, strong, original work on which [her] reputation today largely rests" . The Group named her 'The Mother of Modern Arts' around five years later.
Carr claimed that the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island's west coast had nicknamed her Klee Wyck, "the laughing one." She gave this name to a book about her experiences with the natives, published in 1941. The book won the Governor General's Award that year.
A series of heart attacks in 1937 left Carr bedridden for the rest of her life. Unable to paint, Carr turned to writing for artistic expression. She is interred in the Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, her gravestone inscription reads "Artist and Author / Lover of Nature". Under Canada's copyright laws, Carr's works became public domain at the beginning of 1996, 50 years after her death.
She is also remembered for her writing, again largely about her native friends. In addition to Klee Wyck, Carr wrote The Book of Small (1942),The House of All Sorts (1944), and, published posthumously, Growing Pains (1946), Pause and The Heart of a Peacock (1953), and Hundreds and Thousands (1966). These books reveal her to be an accomplished writer. Though mostly autobiographical, they have been found to be unreliable as to facts and figures if not in terms of mood and intent.
Her life itself has made her a "Canadian icon", according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. As well as being "an artist of stunning originality and strength", she was an exceptionally late bloomer, starting the work for which she is best known at the age of 57 (see Grandma Moses). She was also a woman who succeeded against the odds, living in an artistically unadventurous and conservative society, thus making her "a darling of the women's movement" (see Georgia O'Keeffe, whom she met in 1930 in New York).
In 1994, the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union adopted the name CARR for a crater on Venus. The CARR crater has an approximate diameter of 31.9 kilometers.
Mascall Dance created "The Brutal Telling" in 1997, a dance piece retelling Carr's life story. The soundtrack was commisioned from Veda Hille, who recorded the songs and released them as her album 'Here is a picture (Songs for E Carr)'. The lyrics of the songs were all taken from Carr's journals, letters and writings.