Film

A Biopic Tells the Unlikely Story of Folk Artist Maud Lewis

Maudie, directed by Aisling Walsh, offers a complex portrait of a woman who resided on the literal edges of society and had no formal training, but lived and breathed her painting.

Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis (photo by Duncan Deyoung, courtesy Mongrel Media)

Maudie, directed by Aisling Walsh, depicts the life of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis (1903–1970). The film does not conform to typical biopic standards, just as the film’s subject, Maud Lewis (played by Sally Hawkins), did not adhere to the societal standards of a bona fide artist. Lewis, who came to fame towards the end of her life, was and remains a beloved outsider painter in Canada, best known for her charming depictions of nature, animals, and landscapes. However, the movie is, as far as I can tell, only loosely based on her life, and not explicitly grounded in historical context; there are no opening or closing texts to summarize the lives of the characters. Rather, the focus is on capturing the spirit of an unlikely artist, whom Hawkins successfully depicts as lovable, charming, witty, and with an ever-present smirk.

Set in Digby County, Nova Scotia, the film sets up Maud’s difficult life, being born with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (which caused her to have noticeable physical difficulties), and unsupportive family members who see her as a burden. Cooped up with her controlling aunt Ida after her brother sells their house upon their parents’ death, Maud immediately searches for escape, going to the local dance hall, smoking, and painting.

Ethan Hawke as Everett Lewis and Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis (photo by Duncan Deyoung, courtesy Mongrel Media)

The film focuses not so much on Maud’s art as it does on the environment in which she created. Her painting practice is presented as a natural extension of her desire for freedom outside of the confines of her disability, poverty, abuse, and trauma. Most significant is Maud’s complicated relationship with her husband Everett Lewis (played by Ethan Hawke), whom she meets serendipitously when she applies to be his live-in housemaid to escape her unpleasant living situation with her aunt.

Everett is as much of a social pariah as Maud. He is a cold-hearted, mean oaf of a man who grew up an orphan and made it on his own in his one-room home on the outskirts of the town. They are, as Maud says, “like a pair of mismatched socks,” but they rely on each other for survival — more of a companionship than romance. The movie does not shy away from depicting the harsh reality of this dubious couple, plainly depicting their tenuous and, at times, abusive relationship.

The generative moment of her artistic expression occurs after Everett slaps Maud for saying too much to his fellow fishmonger. She runs into their tiny house, picks up a found can of teal house paint and begins to draw tiny blue trees on the wall, humming to herself in a meditative state. Painting is her coping mechanism, form of expression, and a necessity to her survival.

Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis (photo by Duncan Deyoung, courtesy Mongrel Media)

Oscillating between moments of pain and ones of inspiring artistic expression, Maudie captures the nuance of Maud Lewis’s life and her unexpected success as an artist. The further her relationship with Everett progresses (she eventually persuades him to marry her after making sexual advances) Maud does less and less housework and more and more painting. Working primarily on a small scale, partially due to the limitations of her arthritic hands, she makes a plethora of small postcards and soon almost the entire house — including stairs, doorways, and windows — is covered in whimsical tulips, trees, and birds.

Maud’s luck turns around on a fateful afternoon when a sophisticated New Yorker comes knocking on her painted door. Sandra (played by Kari Matchett) expresses interest in Maud’s art and becomes her first collector, commissioning a larger painting for five dollars. As circumstances begin to improve for Maud with her new patron, she finds local fame in her seemingly simple paintings. She and Everett put out a “Paintings for Sale” sign on the road next to their home and display an array of her paintings in their yard. Her compact pictures of nature, cats, birds, Nova Scotia winter scenes, and sometimes figures, represent little windows into her world. She finds newfound independence and joy in her ability to profit financially from her humble work, though increasingly struggles with her developing health issues.

Once a social outcast, Maud becomes beloved in her community by painting until her last days. When newspapers start covering Maud’s unique story, visitors come from all over to visit her home and buy her work. Most notably, then-Vice President Nixon even requests a commission. The movie ends with historical footage of the real Maud displaying her creations in her home, a small nod to the woman who persisted through so many obstacles but nevertheless continued to paint.

Maud Lewis, “Three Black Cats” (image courtesy the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, all rights reserved)

Since her death, Maud and Everett Lewis’s home, arguably the third main character in the film, has entered the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The Maud Lewis Painted House Society, which formed after Everett’s death in 1979, took care of the home until 1984, when it was sold to the Province of Nova Scotia, which then placed the house in the care of the museum so it could be properly preserved.

So-called folk artists such as Maud Lewis rely on local and outside support to preserve their work and promote their history. And in this sense the Hollywood-cast film Maudie does this by capturing the artist’s spirit, offering a complex portrait of a woman who lived on the literal edges of society, who had no formal training, but lived and breathed her painting.

The film’s release in the US curiously coincided with the discovery of a unique painting of hers in a thrift store in Ontario. In April, the painting went on view in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and has since been sold at auction where it was priced at an estimate of $12,000-16,000 — quite an uptick from the $5 Sandra pays for her work in the film. Her post-mortem success is an indication of how the stories of “folk,” “outsider,” or “naive” artists rarely see the limelight, but when they do, they provide us with an alternative narrative to our definition of what makes a great artist.

Maudie by Aisling Walsh is out now in theaters. 

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