Think you know the story of Maud Lewis? Two Nova Scotia artists want you to reconsider the myth
Her story is highly romanticized — but Laura Kenney and Steven Rhude are showing you the darker parts
Nova Scotia: land of sailboats, lighthouses and Maud Lewis's charming paintings of cats and oxen. At least, that's what comes to mind for many. The provincial tourism and culture departments, major art institutions and the 2016 film Maudie would have you believe a similarly quaint, simplified story about Lewis herself: that despite poverty and physical disabilities, the outsider artist painted happy, colourful images to sell to tourists from the cozy roadside shack where she lived with her husband, which is now reconstructed wholesale inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
The reality, though colourful, isn't quite as cheerful.
Nova Scotia artists Steven Rhude, a Wolfville-based painter, and Laura Kenney, a Truro-based rug hooker, have been working since 2016 to bring some of the darker aspects of Lewis's biography to light. They're critical of how a story that's been so closely intertwined with provincial tourism, an institution (the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia) and a corporate sponsor (Scotiabank, which helped fund the restoration and relocation of the Lewis house) has been sanitized.
A child born out of wedlock, a controlling marriage, ties to the local poorhouse and the eventual murder of her husband, Everett, in that same tiny home outside of Digby — these are just a couple of the elements people gloss over in biographies of Lewis, a woman who Rhude refers to as Nova Scotia's "patron saint of folk art."
Since 2016, Kenney and Rhude have been working on independent bodies of work about Lewis, conducting research and trying to expand on how we see her story. Rhude's work has specifically focused on Everett Lewis's murder during a home invasion in 1979 (nine years after Maud's death), allegedly committed by a person looking to steal the money he'd stockpiled from the sale of Maud's paintings.
"Everett kept her painting; she was his industry. And the more she painted, the more she could sell to tourists, the more she was confined to the house," Rhude says. "He even went to the point where he would actually put her out front of the house...by the highway, so that passersby could see her working on something and painting, and they would sympathize and want to stop, [and] want to come in and buy something."
Rhude and Kenney also touch on the intersection between Maud and Everett's story and that of the local poor farm — one of the workhouses for the poverty-stricken and physically and mentally ill that were dotted across the provinceuntil the last ones closed in the 1960s and 1970s.
Everett Lewis had worked as a night watchman at the neighbouring Marshalltown Poor Farm until it closed in 1963, and when he lost this job, he placed additional demands on Maud. Both artists note how mere luck had kept Maud from becoming a poor farm resident herself — as an unwed mother forced to give up her baby, prior to her marriage to Everett, she could have easily ended up a poor farm ward.
Initially, a group called the Maud Lewis Painted House Society was formed in the Digby area to restore the Lewis's house, but it ultimately couldn't gather enough funding to cover the costs of restoration. The house was sold to the Province of Nova Scotia, with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia — supported by Scotiabank — taking over the house's ownership and restoration in 1996 and eventually moving it to the gallery in Halifax.
According to Rhude, the Maud Lewis Painted House Society expressed concern about the Lewis's life in the house being over-romanticized, ignoring the couple's poverty and the poverty in the region in general. "So exactly the fear they had at the time came true," he says.
Kenney has created more than 30 hooked rugs about Lewis so far, with another dozen in the works. Last summer, she and Rhude held a show of work inspired by Lewis at the Acadia University Art Gallery in Wolfville, which focused heavily on the history of the poor farm and rural poverty. The two artists are planning a second exhibition that they hope to ultimately tour.
"I'm using her joyful imagery to tell the darker side. So [with] the painting of the three cats, I've taken one of those cats and the cat is holding a sign saying, 'Don't sugarcoat Maud's life,'" Kenney says. In others, she alternately depicts the Lewis home as a crime scene, has Lewis lining up to see the film Maudie and shows the house being towed back to Marshalltown.
"In the movie Maudie, you see a hint of [Maud and Everett's relationship being abusive] and then it turns into this lovely love story...It was not a love story, you know. He wasn't very kind to her, and so that sort of sugarcoating is a little bothersome," she says. "Everett, he wasn't just a miser — women and kids were told to stay away from the guy. Nurses would come to take care of Maud, and there were reports of him acting inappropriately."
"When you tie her so closely with an institution or with a corporate sponsor, this isn't stuff they want to talk about," says Kenney.
Both Kenney and Lewis don't see their work as detracting from Lewis's legacy, but rather expanding on our ideas of it. Both ultimately see themselves as fans of the artist. "When you use art as a vehicle for social commentary, it's a way of trying to get people to understand the broader contemporary issues that are at stake here," Rhude says.
"I don't think this takes away from [Maud's spirit] — I think it adds to it. Those images she made were joyful, and they made people happy and that's a good thing," Kenney says. "We don't want to take that away from Maud."