Maud Lewis was born in the early 1900s in rural Nova Scotia with a number of birth defects that left her hands and fingers deformed; rheumatoid arthritis worsened her condition as she got older. She was teased by classmates and dropped out of school as a young teenager, and when her parents died in the late 1930s, her brother, who had received the family inheritance, essentially abandoned her.
Having been taught to paint Christmas cards by her mother, Lewis spent her life painting the things around her on reclaimed board and wallpaper in a simple, child-like style with colours straight from the tube, selling them for as little as $2 to tourists. Painfully shy, she married Everett Lewis, said to be a miserly fish peddler she had met when she responded to his ad for a housekeeper. The two lived in a tiny cabin, which Lewis covered with her art.
“Everett — whose stinginess extended to removing the radio batteries so that Lewis couldn’t run them down by listening to music — scrounged up most of her paint supplies, including leftover house and boat paints,” reads an article from Maclean’s magazine in 1997. “He also haggled with customers — most of them passing tourists — over the price of her paintings, which never went for more than $10 during her lifetime.”
Lewis died at age 67 of pneumonia, after spending years inhaling paint fumes and smoke. She was buried, the article reads, in a child’s coffin.
For all she endured, Lewis’s paintings — depictions of animals, flowers, farm scenes and wintry sleigh-rides among them — are jubilant; this is one of the things that drew screenwriter Sherry White to her.
“When you look at her paintings and how challenging her life must have been, there’s nothing negative in the work, ever,” White told The Telegram. “It just tells me that outlook on the world was incredibly optimistic and that I had to believe that in some way she had that outlook in personal life as well.”
White, a Stephenville native, was approached by a producer in 2004 to write a feature film. She had recently finished writing the screenplay for “Crackie,” her award-winning 2009 feature, and was keen to start another project.
“She basically put a picture of Maud Lewis in front of me and said, ‘What about her?’ Immediately I was drawn to this woman. I recognized some of her paintings, but I didn’t know much about her, and as soon as I started looking into her, I found her completely intriguing and a very beautiful character that was very worthy of building a story around.”
It took White 10 years to finish the “Maudie” screenplay, between writing for many TV projects (she’s currently in L.A., working on the new ABC TV series, “Ten Days in the Valley,” starring Kyra Sedgwick).
Directed by Ireland’s Aisling Walsh, “Maudie” was released last fall on the festival circuit and opened in select Canadian theatres last week. This weekend it will expand to theatres across the country, including Cineplex’s Scotiabank Theatre in the Avalon Mall in St. John’s.
Shot in this province during the summer of 2015, “Maudie” stars Sally Hawkins as Lewis and Ethan Hawke as Everett — not totally who White had in mind when she wrote the screenplay.
“That was the challenging thing for me, watching it,” White said. “When I watched it for the first time, neither one of them were what I had pictured in my head. What I had pictured was a combination of the real people and something I had made up. It was a bit of an adjustment for me, until I saw it with an audience, and then I was able to let go of my own ideas and enjoy the film for what it is.”
What it is, essentially, is an unlikely love story between Lewis and her husband, and a delicate demonstration of how Lewis’s art brought her outside her own life. What it’s not is a caricature: Lewis’s disabilities aren’t the focus or even much mentioned, and her work (which fetches up to $20,000 these days) isn’t misrepresented.
White said she feels just as inspired by Lewis’s story now as she did when she began researching it 13 years ago.
“Even more so,” she explained. “If you look at pictures of her, you see these big bright eyes. There are a lot of pictures where she’s hiding her chin under her sweater. Her spirit does not match her outside. There was a shyness about her outside, but a desperate need inside for her to be seen, and that came out in her work. It’s how she was able to be seen in the world, but hide. I find it amazing that a spirit could be that strong.”
Showtimes for “Maudie” in most of Atlantic Canada are available online at www.cineplex.com.
St. John's filmmaker Mary Sexton on 'Maudie,' the new 'Hatching, Matching and Dispatching' movie and the legacy of her brother, Tommy Stephenville native Sherry White writes feature film about Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis