Friday, April 14, 2017

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 miserly 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 1960'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.

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.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Simple DIY Pot Hanger that folds for Easy Storage

This type of pot hanger is not particularly a new idea. Variations on this theme have been around for years. The advantage of our version is the quick way the whole pot hanger can be collapsed for easy winter storage. 

At the end of the season, simply take down the hanger and remove the plant pot. 

Next, loosen the nuts on the eye-bolts on all four corners of the wooden frame. Remove an eye-bolt from one of the four corners. Fold the frame like a fan.

Reattach the eyebolt loosely to one of the corner pieces (just so it is less likely to go missing when you store the frame).

Place the chains, the S-hooks and the folded wooden fame inside the clean, empty plant pot. Store the compact unit it away for the winter.

Here's how to make your own pot hanger:

Materials you need:

• one plastic pot–7" pot with a total 9" diameter (including the lip) 
• 1x 1.5" S-hook
• 4 x 1.25" S-hooks
• 4 x 2.5" eye bolts and nuts
• 4 x 14" lengths of chain
• 4 x .25" washers
• 4 x 9.25" pieces of  1"x 1" cedar

Tools you need:
• measuring tape
• saw
• drill
• pencil
• pliers (optional)

A few words about the Pot:

I don't recommend a terra cotta pot. It's likely to be too heavy. I recommend a plastic pot with a lip for this project. The lip sits on the cedar frame and holds the plant pot in place. 

Pots with lips are pretty common, so I don't think you should have any difficulty finding one. I found the blue plastic pot you see here at the Home Depot for under $10.

A few pointers about the Chain:

Do yourself a favour and don't try to cut the chain yourself. It is hard to do unless you have really sharp cutters! Ask the retail assistant at the hardware store to cut you four 14" lengths of half-inch sized chain.

Step 1: Cut four 9.25" lengths of cedar (1" x 1" cedar boards).

Step 2: Place one piece of cedar on top of another and square the side and end of the boards as shown. Use the top piece of cedar to mark off a square on the bottom piece. 

Repeat the process marking a square at each end of all four pieces of cedar. You will have 8 squares marked off (one at each end) when you are done.

Next we need to mark the centre of each corner square.

Step 3: Using a piece of cedar as a ruler, draw a diagonal line from one corner of the square to the other. Flip your cedar ruler and draw a second diagonal line from the opposite corner. This is what you will have when you are finished:

Repeat the process of marking diagonal lines on each corner of the four pieces of cedar.

Step 4: Drill a hole at the centre of each X. You should have 8 holes when you are finished.

Step 5: Place one piece of cedar on top of the other and line up the holes. Pass an eye-bolt down 
through the holes.

Turn the wood over and place a washer and bolt on the end of the eye-bolt. Tighten them as necessary.

Repeat the process until you have all four corners together.

Step 6: Slip one end of a S-hook into a corner eye-bolt. Connect a length of chain onto the other end of the S-hook. Repeat this step for each of the other corners. (Optional: Close the S-hook with a set of pliers.)

A finished corner

Step 7: Gather the four lengths of chain onto a large S-hook at the top of the pot hanger. (Optional:Close the S-hook with a set of pliers.)

Place the plant pot into the frame and hang your finished project. 

I left my S-hooks open and found the hanger worked well all summer. If you want to be able to remove the pot to deadhead the flowers or to water the plant however, you may find that it is better to close the S-hooks with a pair of pliers.

The hanger is great for outdoor plants, but there is no reason you shouldn't be able to use it for indoor plant as well. 

Here I used a hanger for a pot of ivy.

This project is easy-to-do with minimal carpentry skills. Not only does the pot hanger come together quickly, it looks attractive too!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Succulent Terrarium

While the gardening world seems to has gone crazy for succulents, I have been very slow to embrace the trend.  Even so, I can see the attraction to these plants. They're easy-to-care-for, which is a bonus for budding green thumbs, who might have the interest, but not a whole lot of time to devote to indoor gardening. They're also pretty with their dusty-blue green hues and attractive sun-burst shapes.

Desperate for even the smallest signs of spring, I visited one of my favourite nurseries last weekend. There were pots of yellow daffodils, tulips and cheerful primroses, but it was the display of potted succulents and terrariums that caught my eye. "That could be a fun little project!" thought I. 

The next thing you knew, I was loading an assortment of the cute little succulents, some potting soil and a wire terrarium into the backseat of my car. 

Here's the materials and supplies you'd need to make your own terrarium:

• An assortment of succulents
• Potting soil with excellent drainage
• Terrarium or shallow dish of your choice
• Soft bristled paint brush
• Decorative pebbles
• Decorative object of your choice 

This is the terrarium I bought ($10 at Terra Nurseries). It comes with a convenient wooden tray that is already lined. The wire framework was black when I bought it, but I thought it would look nicer if it were green. Out came a can of dusty, sage-colored spray paint! (I used multi-surface spray paint that is available at most hardware and paint stores.)

If you can't find a terrarium like this, try using a shallow ceramic bowl, pot or perhaps try one of the low metal trays I have seen at Michaels.

Step 1: Add a base layer of potting soil that is an inch or so deep (the depth will depend on your container). I used a specific potting soil that's created for cactus and succulents. It offers much better drainage than regular potting soil.

These are the succulents I selected for my project. I used two larger plants and four smaller succulents. The smaller plants were just $2.50 each and the two bigger plants were just over $5 each.

The two larger succulents went in first. They were originally potted up with lots of perlite. I tried to keep as much of the perlite as I could figuring it would improve the soil's drainage even more. 

Next, I tucked in the smaller plants. I found a soft bristled paint brush was a handy tool to clean up any potting soil that accidentally got on the surface of my succulents.

Most rocks are free for the taking, so I always feel a bit like I have rocks in my head whenever I buy decorative stones. These pebbles were pretty affordable at the Dollar Store (just $3), so it made me feel a bit more sane when I bought a plastic jar full of buff and grey colored pebbles.

I have to say that the pebbles made a nice top dressing for the terrarium.

The final steps were placing the wooden tray back inside the wire terrarium and adding a decorative object. I used a snail, but you could add a fairy, a gnome or any other object that appeals to you.

I'm rather pleased with the way the whole thing turned out. All together this succulent filled terrarium cost me under $40.

I think the biggest challenge will be not to overwater my succulents. The lined wooden tray has no drainage, so I will have to be really careful not to get carried away when I water. Here are a few pointers I noted on caring for succulents:

Succulents like lots of light (4-6 hours).

• Too much water will cause succulents to rot. Succulents like it when the soil approaches dry before they are watered. In a tray like this or a pot with no drainage, it will take a bit longer for the soil to dry out.

If you have one, use a water meter to check the moisture level of the soil. Another trick is to use weight to determine if your succulents require water. Lift the terrarium in your hands after you water it and make a mental note of how heavy it is. When the soil has dried out, the terrarium will be a lot lighter.

Watch your succulents for signs there is a problem with soil moisture. If your succulent's leaves are mushy, its probably getting too much water. If the leaves are wrinkled or limp, its probably getting too little water.

• Use an organic fertilizer (following the label's directions) during the plant's growing season. 

Now that I have my first terrarium finished, I'm may try my hand at a few more projects using succulents. I may just have become the newest fan of these adorable little plants!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

How to make your own Insecticidal Soap

Insecticidal soap is a safe, effective way to deal with an insect problem both indoors and out. Unlike pesticides, this simple soap solution is biodegradable, so it won't leave a residue that is harmful to birds or beneficial insects like pollinating bees. Sprayed on an infected plant, it kills only the targeted insects.

There are ready-made insecticidal soaps that you can purchase at most garden supply stores. To apply them, follow the directions on the label. You can also make your insecticidal soap.

When to use Insecticidal Soap:

The fatty acids in this simple soap solution work by disrupting the cell membranes and dissolving the natural waxy coating on soft-bodied insects. Unwanted pests suffocate as a result. Insects that can be treated with insecticidal soap include:

• Spider mites
• Aphids
• Mealy bugs
• Thrips
• Immature White Flies
• Immature Leafhoppers

Aphids. Photo by Ken Sproule

Here's the materials and supplies you need to make your own insecticidal soap:

• Measuring cup
• Funnel (optional– it just makes it easier to pour the liquids into the bottle)
• Tablespoon
• Pure all-natural liquid soap such as Castile soap
• Empty spray bottle (look for one at the Dollar Store)


2 and 1/3 cup of water (note: hard water can reduce the effectiveness of the soap)

1 tablespoon of pure liquid soap such as Castile soap (Note: don't use dish soap, regular laundry detergent or any soaps with degreasers, skin moisturizers or synthetic chemicals.)


Remove the top to your empty spray bottle.
Measure the ingredients and using the funnel, pour the them into the spray bottle.
Reattach the lid on the spay bottle and shake the contents gently to combine.
Label the bottle and make sure to store it out of the reach of children.

Before you spray:

Before you begin to apply your spray to an infected plant, there are a few quick things to note.

• Some plants are sensitive to soap sprays, so do a test first. Spray a few leaves or single branch of the plant. Wait a full day to see if there is any signs of burning before proceeding to spray the entire plant.
Sensitive indoor plants include ferns, ivy, succulents, palms, lantana and azaleas. Outdoor plants that might be adversely affected include cherries, plum, Japanese Maple, Bleeding Heart, Ferns, Nasturtiums and Sweet Peas.

• Plants that are stressed should not be sprayed. Don't spray a plant that is wilted and thirsty for water.

• Spray your plant early in the morning when it is cooler and the sun is softer.

• Don't place a plant that has just been sprayed into the bright, hot sun.

Using the Spray:

If it is too cold to work outside, place your plant in the kitchen sink or the bathtub.

Gently shake the bottle to evenly disperse the soap in the water.

Your spray will only work when coming into direct contact with soft-bodied insects, so spray your plant throughly with the insecticidal soap. Turn the plant around in a circle and place the plant on an angle to try to catch all of the leaves including the underside of each leaf.

Thoroughly rinse the soap off after 10 minutes to prevent leaf burn.

Repeat the application of the insecticidal soap once every 4-7 days for a total of three applications to insure that the problem has cleared up.

You might be interested in the article on Unexpected House Pests by Jean Godawa 
on the main gardening blog. 

Many thanks to Ken Sproule and David Cappaert of for 
providing the photographs of insects.