Cogitation 47/224 Friday 22 November 2019 Maud Lewis was a folk artist. The film Maudie paints Maud’s life on the canvas of her relationships with family, community, husband–and art.
On November 12, snow and cold closed Greencroft Community Center where I was scheduled to introduce the showing of Maudie and lead the discussion following. A week later the session took place, the third of four Favorite Feature Films offered among the Fall 2019 courses in the Lifelong Learning Institute of Elkhart County, Indiana.
Maud Lewis would have taken the day to add glorious scenes of snow in her paintings of hills, sky, woods, birds, fields, horses, oxen, cows, harbor, sea, lighthouses, villages, wildlife, children and a few adults, around her Atlantic Canada home in Nova Scotia. ,
I’ve adapted my introduction to Maudie and added photos of her paintings from our visit last month to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. Maudie is a docudrama, based on the true story of Maud and Everett Lewis and other people who lived in western Nova Scotia. In the nature of docudrama, it is drama, history, and a love story wrapped around real people, but portrayed with dramatic license.
Maud Lewis works at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
Judging from her paintings, Maud Lewis (1901-1970) loved spring, every season, actually, Tulips and blossoms appeared in profusion in her works. The beloved folk artist painted all seasons, often using the same scene, just changing the season.
Typical of her style, in winter the upper hills would be green while the lower hills, showing children going to school, a cutter running about, or oxen pulling a sleigh of logs, would be on snow-covered ground. Maud consistently painted winter scenes with maples and oaks in fall foliage.
Maud Kathleen (Dowley) Lewis lived in western Nova Scotia’s Yarmouth & Acadian Shores and Bay of Fundy and Annapolis Valley regions. Maud spent her entire life within one-hour’s drive of her birthplace in South Ohio and her married life in Marshalltown, near Digby.
In mid-October we had planned to take the ferry from Saint John, New Brunswick to Digby to visit Maud’s home area, but when I inquired many weeks in advance, I learned the ferry would be put in dry dock two days before our arrival. Therefore, we took the long road to Halifax, in driving wind and rain, hardly the stuff that would have made for a pleasant ferry crossing. We did not visit Digby (this time), instead concentrated on her work at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Maudie, the docudrama
British-born actress Sally Hawkins plays Maud in Maudie. The true-life story, with some adaptations, is sad and funny, beautiful and moving, shocking and disturbing, inspiring and heartbreaking, lovely and moving, and infused with moments of humour. It centers on a woman with spirit, spunk, gentle stubbornness, determination, loneliness, soul, passion to paint, surprising contentment, joy.
Most printed sources say Maud was born March 7, 1903, but her biographer Lance Woolaver checked the census record of 1911 and found that birth-date to be March 7, 1901. There is no birth certificate for “Little Maud” as she was known. Woolaver’s biography is Maud Lewis The Heart on the Door (2016, 493 pp).
Why the two-year discrepancy is one of the mysteries that surround Maud’s inspiring story. What is not a mystery is that she had an extraordinary talent that set her apart from her contemporaries.
Her talent was folk art, a term, Woolaver said, that describes a naive, untutored art form. Yet her work, from one of Woolaver’s other books, The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis (Nimbus Publishing, 2017), exhibits “the same qualities of those of all great artists—perfect balance and harmony, a masterful use of colour and light, an inspired simplicity.”
Maudie opens with an older Hawkins slowly applying some color to a flower design on the wall behind her. Why is she painting flowers on the wall? Who is this diminutive woman? What is her physical condition?
The next scene features a much younger-looking Hawkins sitting on a porch, in a different house, the house of her aunt Ida, smoking a cigarette. Two people inside the house are talking about her as though she were a child. Maud’s older brother, Charles, is reminding Aunt Ida that he’s paying her to look after Maud. Why does her family think Maud is incapable of taking care of herself, of finding her own way, of being independent?
Maud’s life included an inordinate amount of suffering. She was born with birth defects that left her fingers painfully deformed, her shoulders hunched, and her chin pressed into her chest. She developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
Maud left school early because of how classmates teased her. She was shy. Her mother taught her to play the piano and paint Christmas cards. Her early years at home were her happiest, no doubt influencing her surprisingly sunny outlook on life.
In 1928, Maud bore a child, Catherine, out of wedlock. That was a tightly held family secret. The father abandoned them. The film shows one version of what happened, that is, mother and daughter never met.
In 1936, Maud’s father died.
In 1937 her mother died and Maud went to live with her aunt Ida.
In 1938, Maud married Everett Lewis, a fish peddler. played by actor Ethan Hawke, Watching the movie one wonders what Maudie saw in Everett. What did Everett see in Maudie? How did love grow between these two loners?
Everett was a mostly miserable, miserly, controlling person, who made Maud pay for his own frailties. One has to watch the movie closely to find a glimmer of his redeeming qualities.
Their one-room, plus sleeping loft, home, had no running water, no electricity, no indoor plumbing–all through their 32 years of marriage. The house was rescued, restored and moved inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, along with some of Maud’s paintings and artifacts, opening in January 1997.
The tiny painted house measures 13.7′ x 12.7′ (4.1m x 3.8m). Eventually, Everett secured a small trailer and placed it outback for Maud to use as a studio in summer.
Maud’s window to the world
Maud put her whole self into painting small prints, postcards, Christmas cards, scallop shells and rocks, plus every available surface in the house. From her perch by the window, she painted the world that went by as well as the world that peopled her imagination-rich and retentive mind. She averaged one painting a day, her left arm often supporting her right arm. Her fingerprints are visible on some of the paintings put into the oven to dry.
In 1939 Maud began to sell her paintings from their house. This routine lasted for three decades. In addition to peddling fish and selling firewood, Everett took on an extra job as night watchman at the nearby “Poor House,” where he had lived as a child with his mother.
The couple sold Maud’s paintings to people who passed by their home on the then unimproved main route through western Nova Scotia. During most of her lifetime her paintings sold for $2-3. In later years they sold for $7-10.
However, in 1965, following national publicity, she received commissions, including two in 1970 from the office of vice president Richard Nixon. White House aide John Whitaker, who owned a considerable number of them, brought Maud’s paintings to Nixon’s attention. Maud, likely with little interest in the political or cultural worlds, agreed to do the commission for Nixon, provided she was paid up front.
Commissions were not her favorite thing; commissions of scenes or subjects outside her visual field of reference were not her style. Yet she completed as many as she could. As ever, Everett dealt with the customers and squirreled away the money.
Despite all her life experience to the contrary, Maud infused her art with a bold and boundless sense of joy. Her art depicted cows, cats, horses, fishing villages, flowers, butterflies, birds, ploughing, oxen pulling a load of timber, school children at play, fishermen, lighthouses.
Sally Hawkins said, “There’s this beautiful humour that comes out of her work and this lovely sense of joy.” Maud said, “I’m never happier than when I have a brush in front of me.” In addition to painting on boards she applied her happy outlook to Christmas cards, postcards, scallop shells and rocks. Many locals and others, including Premier Robert Stanfield, Peter Falk and Judy Dench, were among her customers.
Maudie was filmed in various locations in Newfoundland and Labrador—much to the chagrin of Nova Scotians. It was shown in 2016 at the Toronto Film Festival and released in 2017.
In 2017, Marty and I saw the movie at Vickers Theater in Three Oaks, Michigan. We had recently learned that one of Maud’s paintings had been given to the Mennonite Central Committee-related New Hamburg (Ontario) Thrift Store, titled “Portrait of Eddie Barnes and Ed Murphy, Lobster Fisherman, Bay View, N.S.”
The painting rang a bell in the mind of volunteer Louis Silcox. It indeed was an original, appraised at $16,000. In an online auction the painting sold for $45,000.
The docudrama reveals an improbable love story between two loners. For Maud, I believe, loneliness gives place to contentment and freedom of spirit as she pours her soul into painting. For Everett the relationship provided, at the least, companionship and money.
Maud and Everett were married for 32 years. By 1968 Maud’s fragile health took a turn for the worse. She fell and broke a hip. The paint fumes, wood smoke, emphysema, and malnutrition, took their toll. Maud died of pneumonia, July 30, 1970. Everett was killed in 1979 in a struggle with a burglar who came looking for the strongbox.
A telling line from the movie has aunt Ida tell Maud: “You’re the only one in our family who ended up happy.”
A legacy of color and joy
In Maudie we do not find out much about what drives a person to paint. Still, art’s power to console, transform, call forth joy, leaves me in awe of all that Maud Lewis brought to countless households, humble and grand. Despite the deep and mixed emotions with which one comes away from the movie, I believe, as someone has said, you leave the movie happy and leave it there. That’s what Maud would want.
And, she’d want you to put the kettle on and have a cup of tea.