By Erin Morton
The story of the Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, self-taught painter Maud Lewis is one that has seen screen media attention since 1965, when the CBC television show Telescope first featured an episode on her life and work. Entitled “The Once-Upon-a-Time-World of Maude [sic] Lewis,” the program presented a glimpse into the life of a rural, disabled, impoverished artist who lived in a one-room cottage with her husband Everett. In many ways, this view of the Lewises set the stage for how film audiences would later perceive her—first, in the1976 National Film Board (NFB) documentary Maud Lewis: A World Without Shadows and then in a second, more extensive NFB treatment in 1998, The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis. Both films picked up where Telescope left off, building their narrative arcs around Maud Lewis’s financial, personal, and bodily struggles that she somehow overcame through the joy of painting. All three screen media treatments of the Lewises rest on similar premises of poverty and isolation from the dominant society around them. However, what does transition, is the treatment of their married relationship: in Telescope, Everett is a loving companion who does domestic work so that Maud can paint, and also because she is disabled and cannot perform gendered household task; in the 1976 documentary, we see Everett six years after her death, reminiscing on his love for her; by 1998, post-humous portrayals of Everett and Maud’s marriage ranged from loving to abusive, as he both championed her art and somehow also prevented her from achieving more.
It is interesting to read Aisling Walsh’s 2016 feature film Maudie, the fictional version of Maud and Everett’s troubled love story, with these historical representations in mind. The film tells the standard tale of their relationship and her artmaking, tracing her secure middle-class childhood to one of precarity with Everett as she moves from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, to life with him in Marshalltown after answering an ad Everett placed for a housekeeper. Immediately, the Atlantic Canadian viewer will observe that several communities in Newfoundland stand in for these places in Nova Scotia, a giveaway when Maud enters the local store that is held up on stilts along a rocky coast. Local landscape aside, the dim-light scenes of the Lewises once Maud moves into Everett’s cottage are very much drawn from the original Telescope footage—the only known moving images of Maud during her life. This domestic space is one of both love and abuse, which follows the standard narrative of Maud overcoming hardship through her art. In one scene, after Everett hits her, and she opens up a can of green paint and finger paints the walls from the kitchen table. The next scene shows her painting with sardine cans as her palette, as she decorates the cottage walls with blue flowers.
Tracing these multiple representations of the Lewises also reveals that Everett became seen as the driving capitalist force in their relationship, which allowed Maud to paint simply “for art’s sake.” In the 1997 NFB documentary, there is a fictionalized scene of Everett stealing money from letter writers who sent Maud money by mail to purchase paintings. This departure from CBC’s Telescope, which shows tourists visiting the Lewis home to pay Maud directly $5USD, again produces a version of Everett as miser. Maudie deals with this history in several narrative strands, especially in the characters of Sandra, who arrives at Maud’s door and announces “I’m here from New York City.” Sondra claims that Everett has cheated her out of fish she paid for – “plus a handsome tip.” She then enquires about Maud’s painting of a “happy little chicken.” Maud starts painting two tulips on the window pane as Sandra pulls away in her VW bug. When she discusses Everett’s debt with him, Everett says “people are stupid.” “You’re not stupid,” Maud replies with empathy. “I can write it all down for you if you like.” She scrawls out “who owes Everett Lewis?” “Donald,” he replied. “He owes me for six fish.” The result is the establishment of a loving partnership between Maud and Everett, in which they take care of the household finances together. They then deliver fish as a couple with a ledger card that Maud has painted. “How did I know this is right?” The customer asks. “Because I said so,” Everett replies.
“I am the boss.” The customer responds to Maud: “I’ll pay you, if you make me some more of these cards.”
After establishing her role in financial negotiations, Maud pulls out a panelboard from Everett’s woodpiles. Here, in Maudie, we see her painting the panelboard scenes she became known for in real life for the first time. Sitting in the corner by the window, she paints a kitten with a girl in a pink dress and tulips, just as she did for the CBC cameras. The attention to historical footage of Maud in Walsh’s directing is apparent in such scenes, even if many parts of the storyline are necessarily fictionalized. The best parts of the film, indeed, are scenes such as this, where there is little dialogue and instead the story is told through Maud’s experience of her surroundings. In such scenes, the viewer can imagine what Maud was thinking when she painted some of her well-known compositions: She paints Everett as a lumberjack, staring at him lovingly out the window. Walsh also deals with Maud’s brush with fame, showing the couple reading the Star Weekly magazine article that predated the Telescope broadcast, and the CBC cameras that enter the cottage, with a director telling Everett to “smile.” Maudie recreates the dialogue from Telescope, and even the famous Bob Brooks’s photograph of her holding a painting in front of the brightly painted house. The next scene of bustling customers also shows Everett sadly reclining in his rocker as buyers swarm the front step and outside.
Maudie concludes with Everett taking Maud to the home of her long-lost daughter, conceived when she was a teenager, who Maud’s family said died at birth. “How’d you find her?” Maud asks Everett. He doesn’t reply. While Maud doesn’t go into the house, she does observe her from afar, and later tells Everett in bed “she’s so beautiful. She’s perfect.” The reconciled love between Maud and Everett, despite their tensions over household labour, finances, and fame, tells the story of a couple drawn together through struggle rather than split apart. As Maud ages at the end of the film, and becomes more disabled, Everett cares for her up until the moment a bad fall sends her to hospital where she dies. In the final scene of the film, Everett finds his ad for a housekeeper in her sardine, tin and removes the paintings for sale sign from the chair outside. He shuts the door. And in doing so, he closes off the visitors that so marked their everyday lives in Marshalltown, who drove down the number 2 highway in search of the artist they saw on TV – and now in the movies.
Erin Morton is an Associate Professor of Visual Culture in the Department of History at UNB.