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 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 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.


  1. I saw the movie today and loved it. I was researching Maud's work and found your post. Thank you for reposting it. I loved it! ❤️

  2. I saw the movie this afternoon with my husband. What a wonderful film. Your personal connection to the Maud and Everett Lewis story was fascinating to read. Thanks for sharing and re-posting!

  3. This has always been such an amazing story .. I watched the movie not so long ago as well .. it is hard to believe how some people have had to live their lives.
    Maud created such cheerful,colorful scenes even though she was in a great deal of pain .. her heart was full of happiness it seems.