We sent a Canadian art expert to Maudie's big TIFF premiere
What the film gets right and wrong, and why the world needs a Maud Lewis biopic
The Atlantic Film Festival launches tonight in Halifax, and its opening night film is the story of one Maud Lewis, one of Nova Scotia's most celebrated artists, a woman who never travelled beyond Digby County, N.S. in her lifetime.
Born with hunched shoulders, her chin pushed in to her chest, Lewis also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and the ailment knotted her hands as child.
Just holding a paintbrush would have been painful for the the Lewis, and yet her work is unabashedly cheerful. Every scene is vibrantly colourful — painted without shadow. Her pictures choose to capture the sunny side of life in the Maritimes. And for decades, she sold paintings of farmers' fields and kittens and bird-filled harbours from her tiny cottage, a 10x12 foot shack she shared with Everett.
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Though her work is celebrated, and you'll even find a restoration of her home inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Maud Lewis is hardly a household name. So when CBC Arts heard there was a Hollywood version of her life — or rather a Canadian-Irish movie version (the film's a co-production from both countries) — we contacted an expert in Lewis's life and art.
Mayberry Fine Art, which has galleries in Toronto and Winnipeg, has held several exhibitions of Lewis's paintings and they've been collecting her work since the early '70s. That's why CBC Arts sent their gallery director and Canadian art specialist, Shaun Mayberry, to Maudie's Canadian premiere at TIFF last week.
After the show, we gave him a call.
What does Maudie get right? What does it get wrong? And why is there a romantic biopic about this Canadian artist in the first place?
Before we get into the movie, tell me a little about your connection to Maud Lewis. How long have you been collecting her paintings?
Well, we're a family-based business based out of Winnipeg, and my father started the gallery in the early '70s. We do deal in some international art, but our focus over the years has been Canadian art and culture. That encompasses everything from 19th Century colonizing artists to Canadian impressionists, Group of Seven, Canadian modern — and Maud Lewis! (laughs) We have been buying and selling and collecting Maud Lewis's work for well over 30 years, and very assertively for the last 25 years or so.
Why the focus on collecting her work?
For me, Maud Lewis is one of those rare instances where you find someone with a very authentic voice.
You know, it's always been about the story — the story is one of the things that drew me to Maud Lewis. I think people sometimes have the tendency to look at these paintings on the surface as being simple, being amateur, being — we call it 'naïve art.'
She was a self-taught artist, you know. She's an artist who had no formal training, no background as a painter. She was drawn to be creative just out of some natural desire to express herself.
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Why do you think the world needs a movie about that story?
I don't know if the world needs it or not, but I know that the world is a better off place because we have her art work in it, right? (laughs) Now, whether the story needs to be turned into a movie and whether we need stars like Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins to play the roles, I don't know. I'm not in the movie industry.
Ha! OK, fair enough, which is as good a segway as any! I want to hear all about your experience at the movie…
I'm from Winnipeg, so honestly, that was the very first film I've ever seen at the Toronto Film Festival. I'm not a particular movie buff. I'm interested in art!
So when you were at the film, especially because you know so much about her art, what were you watching for?
I tried not to, but I would notice things. Like they played with the timelines — the timelines are off, right?
I would notice things like there's no way she would have painted a picture like that at that time in her life. Or, like, she was painting on Masonite and she didn't use Masonite until the last years of her life!
That's the type of thing that I notice, but it's really not relevant to the telling of the story.
OK, so how long did it take before you were thinking, 'Wait a second! That's wrong!'
Oh, almost right away!
When she started drawing on her house. That was one of the first instances in the movie where we're let into this sort of inner life she has.
Are we talking about the scene where she discovers a can of paint at Everett's house for the first time? The one where she's painting with her fingers?
Yeah, yeah! She did not start out producing that kind of aesthetic, that look. It took her many years to actually carve out her identity as an artist, and that's not clear in the movie.
You get that scene where she's leaving the aunt's to go to Everett's and she grabs her painting supplies, so you have this sense that she did stuff — and she did. She produced work early on.
But you know, it wasn't produced consistently so her real identity as an artist wasn't forged until the late 1940s. There's no indication anywhere in that film what the time frames are. All you know is that you're watching something that's kind of old. It's not your generation.
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What was your take on how they portray how she actually paints? Even in that scene we were talking about, where Sally Hawkins is having this sort of out-of-body moment, moving her fingers around in the pigment.
I think they did a very good job. We have, actually, very little video footage of her painting in her life and they leaned on that footage heavily to develop Maud's character. Absolutely, for sure. Because there's very few photographs of her. That scene where CBC is there [in her house]? That was actually done in 1964.
I thought it was interesting how the movie put such a focus on the fallout from that interview. In real life, how important was that TV appearance to building her reputation?
(Watch a clip.)
Oh, it was enormous in the context of Canadian audiences, Canadian collectors buying her work. She had local people around Digby and that area around Nova Scotia who did support her, and were patrons of hers, but her very first patrons were Americans, and they capture that in the scenes with Sandra (Kari Matchett), who is the American who buys her work.
They don't tell us that's the case in the movie, but I know from my history dealing with the work that Maud Lewis's first patrons were almost all Americans. And if you've ever gone and toured around rural Nova Scotia you'll realize it's like Cape Cod of the North. (laughs) There are lots of them!
They go there because they love the idyllic lifestyle, it's a place where they can really get away from it all, and I think when they were introduced to Maud Lewis, her work became symbolic of the experience they were craving.
This is why we're here! This is the type of thing we find when we come here!
Whether they thought it was high art or not is irrelevant, but the people who supported her work were people who saw her work as synonymous with the life experience that they sought and why they were in Nova Scotia. It was the embodiment of that.
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So in 1964, when CBC does that documentary, it was kind of the first exposure of her work to the rest of Canada, and that actually opened the door to people to really seek her out.
But by the mid 1960s, 1970s, Maud Lewis was incapable of supplying enough paintings to meet the demand. And when you combine that with the physical hardships of a deteriorating body that was breaking down and the amount of pain that she lived with, and discomfort — it's touched upon in the movie, but they don't dwell on it a lot.
What did you think about how they did portray the physical pain she was living with? The very opening shots give you an idea of that right off the bat — she's struggling to control a paintbrush, even wheezing.
I guess because I've thought about it for a long time, it didn't seem to me to portray just how agonizing that was, and how difficult it was for her to paint. But again, I'm almost too prejudiced.
When you watch footage of Maud painting — the only way she could physically hold the brush is between her knuckles.
She had lost almost all mobility in her painting hand by 1964. So she had to use her left hand to be like the motor. She would use her left hand to guide the motion of the paint. The work was painstakingly difficult for her to produce.
I think Sally Hawkins's performance was staggering, I thought she was amazing.
I don't think art was the point of the story. I think they wanted to dwell on the love story.
What did you think of that choice, then — of the focus on the love story between Maud and Everett?
I thought it was the right thing. To me, it's not a documentary about her paintings. I think the painting is, in essence — you know, it's integral to her as a character. You can see that she lives to paint.
Everett was really villainized for years. He was! He was violent. By all accounts, he was physically abusive. That comes through, I think, in the movie.
I think (director) Aisling Walsh tends not to get too caught up in the finger pointing and tries to present a story that lets the viewers decide for themselves.
Overall, what did the film successfully capture?
Well, it's beautifully shot, so it captures the region — even though it was filmed in Newfoundland. (laughs) I think it captures the magic of the Maritimes beautifully.
I thought that Sally Hawkins did an amazing job at portraying her. I really did. I think that that is a very difficult and challenging role and to me that was probably the magic in the whole film. And Ethan Hawke is great.
How do you think the movie will affect Maud Lewis's legacy, so to speak?
I think a lot of times these things serve as an introduction to people. I can tell you already the film is having an impact. We've had people reaching out from a variety of different places that have asked questions about it already. We've had inquiries about availability of work, for example.
The cool thing is, if you have a room full of Maud Lewises and you look at them on their own and you don't know Maud Lewis — the physical hardship and the sense of pain that she experienced through her whole life — nowhere is it found in any of the work.
The film does a very good job, I think, of presenting to people who are uninformed, just how challenging and difficult her life was.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Maudie. Starring Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke. Written by Sherry White. Directed by Aisling Walsh. Premieres at the Atlantic Film Festival (Halifax), Sept. 15; Calgary International Film Festival, Sept. 21; Vancouver Film Festival, Sept. 29. www.mongrelmedia.com