Film & Television

‘Maudie’ — The Gentle Interior Life of an Outsider Artist

During the 1940s, Jean Dubuffet, André Breton, and a number of other French artists established the Compagnie de l’Art Brut. The collection was dedicated to the works of untrained, unconventional artists, many of whom were among society’s most marginalized: children, prisoners, mental patients. Dubuffet defended l’art brut or “raw art” as more legitimate than the works of celebrated masters. L’art brut was devoid by necessity of critical or cultural influence.

“Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses — where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere — are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”

In 1972, art critic Roger Cardinal came up with the English equivalent, “Outsider art.”

That was two years after Maud Lewis died.

Maud was born in rural Nova scotia in 1903, the only daughter of John and Agnes Dowley. She was diminutive in size, malformed, and suffered from what would now be diagnosed as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Although she was by nature and circumstance a loner, she was a surprisingly happy child. Her mother bought her art supplies and encouraged her to paint Christmas cards that they could sell to friends and neighbors. The Dowleys died when Maud was in her 30s; her brother inherited and promptly sold their home; and Maud was forced to live with a bitter spinster aunt. Craving independence, Maud took a position as live-in housemaid for a reclusive fish peddler. Several weeks later, she married him and settled into his bleak, hardscrabble life. The only brightness she found was in her primitive, colorful paintings, which eventually covered the interior and exterior walls of their tiny shack — as well as every piece of paper, wood, tile or other substrate she could get her hands on. Meanwhile, thoses hands became less and less able, as her disease progressed. But, she never stopped painting. The world eventually learned about Maud and she became a celebrity, appearing in magazines and on television. Vice President Nixon purchased some of her work (and eventually hung it in the White House). In her life, she never earned more than $5 or $10 for a painting. However, after her death in 1970, she became Canada’s unofficial Grandma Moses. The market was flooded with forgeries, and her original works sold for thousands. Today, her hand-decorated shack is on permanent display at the Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

There are multiple ways to dramatize Maud Lewis’s life. You could focus on her unlikely rags-to-riches story. Or, you might focus on her ability to overcome disability; sort of a less showy My Left Foot. Or, you could use her actual art as a surreal narrative device, as Julie Taymor did in Frida. In the enchanting new film Maudie, Irish director Aisling Walsh and Canadian screenwriter Sherry White center instead on the artist’s unusual, at times abusive, but ultimately loving relationship with her employer-turned-husband Everett.

Touching on true events, the new movie begins just before the artist goes to work for the fish peddler. She is desperate to leave her aunt’s, and willing to work hard for little money and virtually no appreciation if it means escaping. When she applies for the job (having limped miles to get to his shack), Everett kicks her out. She stubbornly stays, gradually turning that shack into a home. At one point, she runs into her aunt at the general store and learns that she has become a scandal. “Everyone is talking” and assumes she’s his “love slave.” The unassuming, plain, and “crooked” Maud laughs to herself quietly, but with genuine delight.

In truth, she resists his sexual advances unless he agrees to marry, so they do. Over the decades (Maud and Everett were married for 33 years), they adapt to each other’s rhythms. Everett even takes on some of the housework when Maud’s paintings start to sell. There is hardship, but there are also moments, albeit brief ones, of fellowship, humor, and joy.

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  • Francesca July 12, 2017 at 2:44 pm

    How beautiful I found this piece. If your review (more a tribute and contemplation) of Maudie touched me so deeply, then I look forward with pleasure to what treasures await when I actually see the film. Thank you for adding a layer of richness to my busy day.

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