Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door is new biography that’s ‘dark at every turn’
Lance Woolaver’s new 500-page book is an in-depth look at the painful and impoverished life of Nova Scotia’s most famous folk artist.
Apr 2, 2017 2:16 PM by: Elissa Barnard
Maud Lewis depicted a colourful rural life in paintings that she sold for under $10 and are now worth thousands. Lance Woolaver has written a new biography of the famed artist Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door.
Maud Lewis chronicler Lance Woolaver admits his latest book on the famous Nova Scotia folk artist is “eccentric and dark.”
Woolaver’s highly detailed, 500-page biography, Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door, debunks the myth of Lewis “as a happy little elf in a bright house doing nothing but paint.”
Myths are fine, says Woolaver, in an interview in the Halifax Central Library near his downtown Halifax home. “They give us hope.”
And he’s keen to see the new movie, Maudie, shot in Newfoundland, picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for U.S. release and coming to Halifax April 14.
In it, author Sherry White moves the story away from reality to create a romance between Maud and her husband Everett in director Aisling Walsh’s fictional masterpiece starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.
The truth of Maud’s life, however, is a dark one, says Woolaver. “It was a brutal existence. It’s a book that had to be written because we didn’t know the true extent of Maud’s struggle.”
His lifelong fascination with Nova Scotia’s most famous folk artist, which has yielded two previous books and a hit play, lies in the contrast in her cheerful, colourful art and her impoverished life.
“Maud gave us this legacy of beautiful paintings and it came out of the most desperate circumstances,” says the Digby-born author, who visited the artist as a child with his parents.
“For me it’s the idea that you don’t give up; you do what you’re best at.”
Author Lance Woolaver on Maud Lewis’s life: ‘It was a brutal existence.’
Born in Yarmouth in 1901 with sloping shoulders and her chin near her chest, the diminutive artist suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that caused her hands to become severely gnarled as she aged.
As a young woman in Yarmouth she fell in love with Emery Allen, whom Woolaver thinks was the love of her life. After she became pregnant, Allen abandoned her and totally exits from her story, says Woolaver.
Maud’s daughter Catherine Dowley was adopted and later contacted Maud but the artist wanted nothing to do with her.
“The child went to Marshalltown to reunite. Maud said, ‘My child was a boy born dead. I’m not your mother,’ and at the time there were three grandchildren. Maud never accepted her child. She attempted to contact Maud again in a letter. ”
After the death of her parents, Maud moved to Digby to live with her Aunt Ida then answered an ad for a housekeeper posted by Everett Lewis.
“One of the Digby interviews suggests the first few months of Maud and Everett living together were happy times in which they travelled in the Model T,” says Woolaver. That car is featured in many of Maud’s paintings.
However, as soon as the miserly Everett knew he could get money out of her art, things changed, says Woolaver. He kept her on a painting schedule and isolated her from her neighbours.
”I think Everett was a difficult man. He had $22,000 in cash (when he died) when they had no screen door, no electricity, no running water.”
“With the exception of Maud’s decorations, the house was caught in time and the time was the 1890s,” he writes in the book.
Maud Lewis created two paintings a day, says biographer Lance Woolaver. This one is titled Sandy Cove.
Maud struggled through pain to paint two pictures a day, he says.
Woolaver dug up the “midden” at the back of the little house after the building was moved to Halifax, restored and installed in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
He found hundreds of tiny aspirin tins.
“Those aspirin tins were like digging into a bed of clams on the shore,” says Woolaver. “I think Maud was medicating her pain for arthritis with aspirin and tea and having a smoke. I think she was in pain all the time.
“Physically every painting was a struggle. I think she enjoyed painting this bright little dream world, it certainly wasn’t the world she lived in.”
When Maud died in 1970, Everett sold off everything of hers. “I even tracked down the lady who bought her iron for $1. I don’t think he loved her, I don’t think he cared.”
This dense book is rich in details like how to cut eel grass for insulation, the fact that Great War uniforms were turned into rugs in the 1930s, and a description of view out the window of Maud’s childhood home. To get this detail, Woolaver went into a derelict Yarmouth house standing next to the torn-down house where Maud spent her childhood, which was a happy one in her early years.
However, writing this book was not fun. “It really is a story where every turn is dark. It’s a very difficult book to read.”
The late Nova Scotian photographer Bob Brooks photographed Maud and Everett in their tiny home and worked with author Lance Woolaver on books and a film about the artist. Woolaver dedicates Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door to Brooks and his late wife Marion.
Woolaver, who never spoke to Maud and feared Everett but loved the house as a child, has been fascinated by the artist for decades. His hit play, Maud Lewis: A World Without Shadows has had nine productions including a run at Neptune Theatre.
He dedicates Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door to award-winning photographer Bob Brooks and his wife Marion. Both are deceased.
Brooks took photographs of Maud and Everett in their little house for the 1965 Star Weekly article that helped catapult the artist to fame. Woolaver worked with Brooks on three books including the book and the film of The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis (Nimbus)and Christmas with Maud Lewis, no longer in print.
Woolaver, himself, wrote the board book Christmas with the Rural Mail, still in print.
“Everything we did was as a team. He was a cheerful guy, everybody loved him. I used to call Bob “Karsh,” says Woolaver. “I think Bob’s portraits are appreciated but have never been acknowledged as the masterpieces they are.”
Brooks died in 1999. “He called me from the hospital and said, ‘Don’t worry, Lance, I’ll be out soon,’ and I never saw him again to say goodbye. When Bob passed away I went into a slump. This is my first book in 10 years.”
Woolaver published Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door through Spencer books, named for his wife Martha Spencer.
His play about famous Nova Scotia contralto Portia White, first produced by Eastern Front Theatre, is being produced at the Victoria Playhouse in Petrolia, Ont., in August.
Maud Lewis: The Heart at the Door is available at Carrefour Atlantic, Drala Books, Bookmark, Schooner Books and Jennifer’s and may be ordered from any book store. It is also available on amazon.ca. Woolaver expects to do a tour of rural Nova Scotia this spring.
HEART ON THE DOOR UPDATE: The new biography of Maud Lewis is now available also at Mad Hatter Books, Annapolis Royal; the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia bookshop, Halifax; the Winding River Gallery of Stewiacke; Whales n Sails Giftshop in Digby; the Box of Delghts in Wolfville; and Zwicker’s Art Gallery on Doyle Street in Downtown Halifax. Bookshops and Giftshops wishing to stock MAUD LEWIS: THE HEART ON THE DOOR may contact Martha Woolaver at Spencer Books: firstname.lastname@example.org.