Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Evertt's Painting and Murder

The roadside sign from The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis by Lance Woolaver

There is a new movie out about the life of Maud Lewis. To celebrate the movie's release and the life of an amazing woman, I am republishing this post.

Though Evertt Lewis' gaunt face and rail thin body seemed frail, his bright eyes had the sly look of a hustler about to make his mark. He shifted through a messy pile of assorted household objects and pulled out a thin art board, wrapped roughly in old newspapers and presented it to my father.

Evertt explained to my father that all of his wife's paintings had sold in the time since her death, but he had a painting of his own that he could sell to us. My father unwrapped the old newspaper, revealing a winter scene of two yoked oxen painted in near perfect mimicry of Maud's by then well known style.

Maud's paintings very often included the figure of Evertt, so when Evertt did his own paintings, he sometimes included Maud. In the winter landscape Evertt showed my Dad and I, Maud could be seen standing beside the two oxen in her red coat. In the foreground, there where two identical brown rabbits munching on matching shrubs laden with red berries. Evertt was not been able to figure out how to properly mirror the rabbits on either side of the artwork, so he simply painted the same bunny twice. At the bottom of the thin art board was his signature written in an uneven, childlike hand.

Twenty dollars - that's what he told my father he was asking for the painting.

If my father was disappointed with the fact it was not a Maud Lewis original, he did not show it. He handed Evertt a twenty dollar bill and chatted respectfully with the old man.

Maud in her red coat. She uses the coat's large floppy sleeves to hide her hands, which were crippled and deformed by rheumatoid arthritis. Photograph by Bob Brooks from the The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis.

Maud and Evertt Lewis's home has been restored and stands on 
permanent display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Standing behind my father, I looked up from the painting into the gloom of the tiny, one room house. Actually, it was more of a cottage than a house, measuring not much more than 10 feet by 12 feet. The cheerful spring flowers, birds and butterflies, which were painted on the interior walls and window panes seemed out-of-step with the messy stacks of papers and other household things that littered every flat surface and filled every corner. The furniture consisted of a ragtag assortment of wooden chairs, a table and a daybed. In one corner, a large wood stove painted with bright orange and red flowers, provided the only heat for the house. There appeared to be no bathroom, no running water, no electricity or phone.

The low-hung ceiling, not much above my father's head, pressed down on the whole scene and made me feel claustrophobic and anxious. At that point in my young life, I was thinking of studying art in college and then finding a way to earn a living as an artist. It made me wonder if my father had organized this visit as a cautionary tale. I couldn't wait for the conversation to end so we could leave.

(Take a tour of the house here.)

Not long after our visit that summer afternoon, Evertt was murdered.

Rumours had spread through the local community that Evertt, well known for his frugal ways, had money in a jar buried in the garden or stashed under the floorboards of his house. A young man broke into the house hoping to make off with some cash and Evertt died in the struggle.

Evertt gathers firewood for the stove, while Maud watches from the doorway. 
Photograph by Bob Brooks from the Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis.

What makes the lives of Maude and Evertt Lewis so remarkable is that, out of physical hardship and extreme poverty, was born the most joyous artwork imaginable. The story of Maude's charming paintings really began when Maud met Evertt.

Over the years, Evertt told a number of different stories about his courtship with Maud. In the version he liked to repeat most often, Maud walked all the way from her aunt's home in Digby, Nova Scotia to his one room house in answer an ad. Evertt, a forty-four year old bachelor at the time, had placed the ad in local stores looking for a housekeeper. Apparently Maud refused to be a live-in housekeeper and insisted that they would have to marry, if she were to come to keep his house. As Evertt tells the story, he was initially undecided about her proposal. His dog, on the other hand, was "... a pretty sharp dog, who wouldn't let anyone into the house. But when Maud came, he never said a word."

The more likely story is that Evertt met Maud when he came to the door of her aunt's home peddling fish. Maud was flattered by his attentions and impressed with his black model-T Ford (the black car figures in many of Maud's paintings).

Photograph by Bob Brooks from The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis

Maud had been born with multiple birth defects that left her shoulders unnaturally sloped and her chin resting on her chest. As a child, Maud was often mocked by other children for her deformities. Her school attendance was irregular at best, and by the age of 14, she left school having completed only grade 5.

In the mid 1930's Maud's life took an unhappy turn, when her father passed away, followed by her mother two years later. Then Maud became pregnant.

As with many an unwed mother in the 1930's, Maud was sent in shame to a rural home to give birth to her baby in secrecy. After the baby was hastily put up for adoption, Maud's only brother Charles banished her to live with an aunt in the small town of Digby. Charles never saw or spoke to his sister again.

Maud did not let nature limit her representations of the world around her. In this painting, there are trees with brightly colored fall leaves in a winter landscape. From the Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis by Lance Woolaver.

Maud and Evertt married in 1938. Maud was pleased and proud to be a married woman despite the fact that Evertt lived in relative poverty. While her own childhood had been a comfortable one filled with loving parents, pet cats, music and art, Evertt had not been so lucky. As ward of the local county, he was boarded out to local farms, where he received food and lodging in exchange for work. This childhood experience taught Evertt to be a resourceful scrounger.  He caught fish in nearby tidal pools and bartered the fish for produce. He dug for clams, trapped rabbits and grew his own vegetables in a small garden plot behind his tiny house.

If Evertt was hoping his new wife would do the cooking and the cleaning, he must have been disappointed in married life. By the time she wed Evertt her mid-thirties, Maud's hands had become so deformed by arthritis, she could barely grasp a paint brush in her fingers.

Photograph by Bob Brooks from The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis

As a child, Maud's mother Agnes had taught her how to paint Christmas cards, which they then sold door to door for five cents a piece. As she grew older Maud found cards time consuming, and they required finer work than her hands would allow, so she switched to painting.

Maud began each painting with a pencil sketch and then filled in the shapes with quick strokes, one hand supporting the other hand that held the paint brush.  She painted the same scenes again and again like favourite songs: a yoked pair of oxen, horse drawn carriages, cats, birds and flowers. What is so lovable about her crude style is the bright colors and the underlying humour.

Painting from the Collection of Bob and Marion Brooks from The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis

When she was in her mid-sixties, Maud's health fell further into decline. She died in 1970 and was laid to rest in a child's coffin. By then her paintings had achieved notoriety through a series of articles in newspapers and magazines, as well as a feature on the CBC television program Telescope.

 Painting from The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis by Lance Woolaver

Evertt lived on another 11 years after Maud's death. During that time he became increasingly eccentric and suspicious of the world around him. Apart from his old age pension, the painting Maude did before her death were Evertt's only source of income. When the last of her paintings had been sold, Evertt began to paint his own artwork.  The painting of the two oxen was one such creative endeavour.

Years after my father and I paid our visit to Maud's and Evertt's tiny house, I had stumbled across a trendy store in a well-to-do area of downtown Toronto. I stopped dead in my tracks, when I spotted, on the wall behind the sales counter, two paintings by Evertt Lewis. One was priced at $7000 and the other was $9000.

I thought back to the our visit to the little house and to the painting that my father had purchased for $20. Wouldn't Evertt, that sly old fox, have driven a harder bargain if only he had known what the painting would worth one day!

The painting that my Dad purchased hangs in my dining room below a small print of one of Maud's winter scenes. I felt that their artwork should be together after all.

The Movie Trailer for "Maudie"

References and Other Related Reading:

The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis
by Lance Woolaver
Photography by Bob Brooks
Nimbus Publishing
This is a beautifully written book and my principal reference for this post. Here are the publisher's notes: Maud Lewis (1903-1970) was recognized and revered in her own lifetime, She offered her endearing images to the passing world through her roadside sign, "Paintings for Sale" and was rewarded by the enthusiastic response she received from both the community and tourists as well as from art collectors. 

The Painted House of Maud Lewis
Conserving a Folk Art Treasure
By Laurie Hamilton
Goose Lane Editions 2001:
For many years, Maud Lewis was one of Nova Scotia's best-loved folk painters. Between 1938, when she married Everett Lewis, until her death in 1970, Maud Lewis lived in a tiny one-room house near Digby, Nova Scotia. Over the years, she painted the doors inside and out, the windowpanes, the walls and cupboards, the wallpaper, the little staircase to the sleeping loft, the woodstove, the breadbox, the dustpan, almost everything her hand touched.


  1. What an intriguing story. Amazing art , how lucky you are to have those pieces. Your Dad certainly got a bargain..

  2. I am so excited to read this wonderful post. In 2003, while staying in Digby, we stumbled on Everett & Maud's homestead accidentally. It was impossible to find, down a dirt road, and it was pouring rain. We knew nothing of Maud Lewis. What a find! I now have a print of her three black cats at the top of my stairs, and two other prints in the bedrooms... I love her work and her story, and how we found out about her. Your story of Everett's paintings and the incredible value they fetch is amazing. I love that you have united Maud and Everett (at least their art) once again.

    After our trip I told people about Maud Lewis and the little cabin and her art and her wonderful story and no one was much interested or much liked the prints I got. I am so glad to read this post to prove otherwise!

  3. Jennifer, thank you for telling this wonderful story. I love Maud's paintings and their bright cheery style, though prior to this post, I didn't know much about her personally.

  4. Maud's story is one that should warm anyone's heart. I am especially fond of when she slips her devilish nuances into a picture. Fall leaves in winter...my painting of "Two Deer" have an extra set of hoofprints in the snow! I have beeen smitten with her work for years and am now the proud owner of 7 original paintings and an xmas card. Expensive hobby but fulfilling beyond description!

  5. So sweet. I love folkart and this is really special.

  6. I enjoyed reading this so much. Thanks for posting Maud and Everett's story.

  7. What a wonderful story. I had never head of them but will certainly look up their artwork. It is very whimsical and draws you in to notice every little thing that is going on.


  8. I hadn't heard Maud Lewis' story before. So interesting! I love how she painted everything in her house.

  9. I had never heard of Maud or Evertt before. How wonderful.

    Thankyou for taking the time to post this.


  10. This is an interesting read. I wonder how much those pictures are worth now.

  11. I came across your post today at work but knew I had to wait until I was home in the evening to fully digest your tale! I am so happy that I've given this my full attention ... what a wonderful story! I absolutely LOVE your painting and the print and they do belong together. I am so intrigued by your story and these eccentric artists ~ fascinating! I must read more! Thanks for the history.

  12. Thanks for sharing this beautiful story. It makes me think about how we never know what our legacy might turn out to be!

  13. Beautiful story. Is great to see the paintings have such history

  14. What a wonderful, well written post!! I love art, especially art as accessible as Maud and Evertt's. What difficult lives they led. I live in an area where people whine if the line at Starbucks is too long. Thanks for the fascinating story and refreshing perspective. :o)

  15. This post was so enjoyable and a great read. Have been in the little house at the N.S. Art Gallery and know of Maude's life, but the way you wrote about it, made it "more real".

    Thanks for visiting and commenting on my blog. I love your photos and note you too have a picket fence in your garden. I also note...that I need to put more rose bushes around mine!! Thank you, have put Marjorie Fair Rose on my list. She is lovely but I will admit, roses do not do well for me. Encouragement like your blog photos, inspire me to try again.

  16. hi, I am from the area. and the house was not down a dirt road...there was a replica on a dirt road...their home is no longer there....and it was on highway 101 in Marshalltown...right on the highway

  17. I assume that Anonymous is referring back to Laurrie's comment about visiting the house, as I made no reference to it being down a dirt road in my post. ( Laurrie remembers driving down a dirt road to visit Maud's house. See her comment above).
    My own visit to Evertt and Maud's house in Marshalltown was some thirty years or so ago. The tiny painted house is now on permanent display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. I often revisit the house in the art gallery, whenever I visit home (Dartmouth,Nova Scotia). I have never been back to Marshalltown, but understand that a replica house may have been erected somewhere in the area (near the original location, which as Anonymous indicates, was steps away from the highway).
    The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has made it easy for people worldwide to visit Maud and Evertt's house. Just go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1Q4NrdthUU

  18. I can never see this woman's art and read of her life's hardships without some sorrow that she did not live long enough to see her paintings realize larger sums so that she could finish her days in comfort.
    You say "Maud did not let nature limit her representations of the world around her. In this painting, there are trees with brightly colored fall leaves in a winter landscape" Actually, I don't know the circumstances of that painting but it is not necessarily off the mark. I have certainly seen snowstorms hit when the autumn leaves were not off the trees, with snow deep enough for the use of a sleigh. It isn't common, but it isn't exactly rare. It is quite possible that she painted this scene precisely to capture such an event.

  19. Thank you for your comment Anonymous. Toward the end of her life, Maud's art did enjoy some celebrity, due in no small part to Bob Brook's wonderful photographs, an article in Chatelaine magazine and a television show on the CBC. Commissions came in from far and wide, including one from then president Richard Nixon. Maud paintings also attracted regular local patrons, who not only bought her artwork, but brought her cigarettes and food items as well.
    Sadly, Everett whose early life was one of extreme poverty, had grown to into a miser, who hoarded everything. Though Maud commissions meant that she and Everett had more spending money in these later years, Everett socked most of it away. Rumours of hidden jars of money eventually lead to Everett's death.
    With regarding Maud's winter landscapes with fall trees, you may well be right, Anonymous. Maud may well have painted an actual snowfall in late fall. Freak storms do happen and perhaps she recorded one. I still think it is more likely however, that she thought that trees with brightly colored leaves were more beautiful than bare, unadorned branches.

  20. Lovely story - thanks for sharing it. I went to see the film Maudie last night and found it very moving, inspiring and also of course sad for the hardships she lived through. But she was able to feel glad of so much and this is a wonderful lesson in our dissatisfied age.

    1. I have seen the movie and enjoyed it immensely. I thought it was a great fictionalization of her life.

  21. I have visited Nova Scotia many times but did not know of Maudie Lewis. Last night I went to the movie not realizing the background nor the geography. I love true story so I was intrigued. Since I love painting that is the first thing that captured my interest. The movie was deeply moving. I came away feeling sad for her life but inspired by her personal outlook on life as a whole. See the movie if possible, u won't be disappointed!

    1. I have seen the movie really enjoyed it immensely. She did see the beauty in simple things and had a child like wonder for the world around her. It comes across in her paintings and I think that is part of their endearing charm.

  22. When I visited Maud's house and exhibit in Halifax, I was moved to tears. I did not know much of Maud's story at the time and have since researched a bit more and of course, watched the movie. Art had to have been the one shining light in Maud's life, and is a testiment to a bright soul living what had to have been a bleak life. I love Maud's unique perspective, use of bright colour and simple form. We are fortunate indeed to be able to view the world as Maud interpreted it.

    1. Maud's life was indeed humble and poor. Somehow I don't think she saw her own life as bleak. That is our own unique perspective. I think she saw life as she painted it. Happy and colorful. I think you are absolutely right. She was a bright soul.

  23. what a pity that an Artist must be dead to be recognized and well paid...
    thank you for this article!

    1. Many artists never live to know their fame or see any significant money for their work. This has gone on for centuries and does not seem likely to change any time soon. Sad really!

  24. "As with many an unwed mother in the 1960's..." Did you mean 1930's? Love your story!

    1. Sorry, that was a typo. You are right, it was the 1930’s

  25. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Sorry Christine, I removed your question by accident. The movie is “based on a true story” and is a very well executed dramatization of that true story. Overall I think it holds fairly true to the feeling of the real story, but there is some use of fiction. For instance, I don’t think Maud ever knew what became of the child she gave up. Unwed mothers were not treated with much dignity in those days. Usually they went to maternity homes where their children were taken from them and given up for adoption. The adoption records were sealed, so it is doubtful she knew what happened to her baby.
      Maud and Evertt’s relationship was tumultuous. The books I reference would be your best source of information. I do believe the author of the Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis does write that he was known to have hit her on occasion.
      In the painting I have in my dining room Evertt has depicted Maud in her red coat. I think that depiction after her death pays homage to her and the impact she had on his life. They were very poor for most of their lives and life in that tiny house must have been difficult. I like to think that they did love one another despite the hard times.

  26. My mother recently passed away and I have been researching an article she had written “Frail woman with a bold brush” Doris McCoy. I was with my mother when she interviewed Maude and remember sitting listening to the conversation. Maude was a very shy but happy lady with a way about her that was hard to resist. Yes mom ended up buying a painting from her and I got the feeling she was more interested in presenting the painting then she was in the money. We still have the painting in our family it is quite a conversation piece.
    Earle McCoy


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