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Review

Made in British Columbia: Eight Ways of Making Culture

By Maria Tippett

November 3, 2015

Review By Michael Kluckner

At first glance, I was sceptical of Made in British Columbia. What more could possibly be written about painter Emily Carr or architects Francis Rattenbury and Arthur Erickson? But Maria Tippett’s carefully crafted biographies of them, and of novelist Martin Grainger, writer/critic George Woodcock, playwright George Ryga, composer Jean Coulthard, and artist Bill Reid, deftly examine their artistic legacy on the Left Coast.

The subtitle of the book refers to “making culture” rather than making a culture; it is in the subjects’ distinctive oeuvres, and the paths they took to create them, that the book becomes more than the sum of its parts. As Tippett writes in her epilogue, the shaping of British Columbia’s culture “has more than one plot” (231). She makes no distinction between the fine arts — painting, music, and fiction-writing — and the applied arts, such as architecture, non-fiction-writing, and jewellery-making, and she focuses the same level of analysis on each.

Her subtext suggests a British Columbia that was a wilderness Eden once occupied only by Nature’s innocents (“One can only wonder what the Lekwammen people must have thought ….”) (22) who were dispossessed of their land and culture, a theme that becomes focused in analyses of the work of Grainger, Carr, and Reid. No human-made landscape, the book implies, could equal the glory of the natural cathedral.

Her interpretations of broad themes of art, and of artists’ lives, make worthwhile reading, especially in understanding the patterns that unite and separate them. The majority — Rattenbury, Carr, Woodcock, Coulthard and Erickson — applied foreign-learned techniques and aesthetics to their work. Carr, Woodcock, and Ryga could be said to be Outsiders vs. the Establishment, while Coulthard and Erickson benefited greatly from parental support and connections. Rattenbury, Carr, and Erickson were lucky, while Woodcock achieved his literary reputation through vast productivity and dogged persistence. Rattenbury, Woodcock, Reid, and Erickson were relentlessly and successfully self-promotional, while Carr, Ryga, and Coulthard struggled along more like the solitary artists of legend.

Carr, Woodcock, and Reid were initially successful elsewhere, if only in eastern Canada rather than in British Columbia, giving them credibility at home; Carr and Coulthard, especially, were disadvantaged by living in British Columbia rather than in, say, culture-centric Toronto. Ryga and Woodcock used their art as a vehicle for social change. Reid and Erickson happily took sole credit for collaborative efforts. As Tippett notes, all wanted to move “beyond provincialism” (192), meaning they wanted their work to speak to tastemakers in bigger, older, more important cities. The CBC is mentioned many times and was germane to the success of Woodcock, Ryga and Reid.

All the voices are culturally white, including Reid’s with his “artifakes” (180) reflecting his conflicted part-Haida ancestry. Tippett provides interesting analysis of the appropriation debates that challenged both Reid’s and Carr’s work; however, some comparison with, for example, the development of Inuit art and its introduction into the museums and galleries of southern Canada would have been welcome.

The odd one out is Englishman Martin Grainger, author of Woodsmen of the West. Published in London in 1908, it was more successful there than in British Columbia and was out of print until 1964. It is read “less as a work of imagination than as a documentary chronicle” (30). His is the only true colonial story, of man exploiting the wilderness, whereas all of the others pursued their muses amidst a more settled society.

Missing from the collection and analysis is an Asian-ancestry voice, perhaps a writer’s. Tippett’s very few missteps concern people of Japanese ancestry, 21,079 of whom, not 27,000 (202), were removed from the coast in 1942. Raymond Moriyama, Tak Tanabe, and Joy Kogawa “never had a chance to gain early recognition … for the simple reason that they were interned” (233) — they were only sixteen, nineteen, and nine respectively when the war ended. Architect Kenzo Tange becomes Tange Kenzo in the text (214).

In her epilogue, Tippett notes that the contemporary artistic scene is considerably more diverse than the one she has written about. British Columbians such as artists Ken Lum and Ian Wallace are now “exporting their culture” (237). Pop culture goes unmentioned — perhaps a future volume could tackle that subject? And, finally, she does right one wrong of many previous, including recent, works on Erickson: the voice of architect Geoffrey Massey, long subsumed in the tsunami of hagiography about his former partner, is clearly heard.

Made in British Columbia: Eight Ways of Making Culture
Maria Tippett
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2015. 272 pp. $32.95 cloth