"Maudie" Review - The Story of Maude Lewis

“Oxen with Logs” by Maud Lewis. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, all rights reserved

What exactly is folk art?  The definition is broad but most art historians can agree that folk art is art made by untrained artists.   Grandma Moses and Edward Hicks (Peaceable Kingdom paintings) are iconic.   But folk art may also include utilitarian objects with decoration, such as painted tin ware or stoneware jugs with painted figures.  Rarely crude, the best folk art is marked by a simplicity, charm and power that often proves enduring.   When we look at folk art, we usually don’t think about the culture and creative process that shaped the images on the canvas- or door or wall.  Many folk painters came from very poor or isolated backgrounds, like the black painter, Bill Traylor, whose simple watercolor images of mules, farmers and birds on small scraps of paper are now very hot in the collecting world.  Unknown to most of us, Canada boasts its own Grandma Moses: Maude Lewis, the Maudie of this film.  Crippled at a young age from rheumatoid arthritis, Maude lived in Nova Scotia and was taught by her mother to paint Christmas cards.  Despite an impoverished, difficult life and marriage, she turned out many charming scenes of the countryside in the 1950’s and 60’s.  She died in 1970 and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax has her tiny house and many paintings.  Most are small because she had difficulty moving her arms freely.   She drew what she saw around her: oxen pulling a wagon, birds and flowers, animal portraits, and sometimes people.   Usually her figures appear in a wider landscape.   Always bright and still, without shadows, Maude’s work is enchanting.


Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis. Photo by Duncan Deyoung, Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins in Maudie. After their wedding, Maud is pure happiness and Everett is his usual stoic self. Photo credit: DUNCAN DEYOUNG

Already the subject of a well-regarded biography and a documentary film, Irish director, Aisling Walsh, has made an outstanding new film that looks lovingly at her life and art.  Maudie opens with a closeup of arthritic fingers painting a flower on a wall.  We hear a conversation from the next room, we see a small lame woman asking her brother about the family house.   "I sold it," he says.   "You can’t do that,” she insists.  “It belongs to both of us."  For Maude, played by Sally Hawkins, this means being condemned to continue living with her unpleasant Aunt Ida.  Soon though Maude goes into a dry-goods store and overhears a tall, rough, crude village local, Everett Lewis, played by Ethan Hawke, tell the proprietor that he needs to hire someone to clean his house and cook.  He apparently can’t write, so the proprietor writes a notice for him to post on the bulletin board in the store.  Everett sells fish in the town and does occasional odd jobs.  He leaves, Maude grabs the notice, and ends up knocking on the door of his tiny shingle house just outside of town.  Everett has two dogs and a flock of chickens but neither running water nor electricity.  He reluctantly hires her but she has to share a bed with him in the attic, the only bed in the house.  Worst still, Everett is difficult and sometimes cruel.  Maude, however, is relentlessly determined to make the best of everything - and to paint.  And paint she does, first the walls, then his bread box, and soon scenes on scrap pieces of wood and wallboard.  

Ethan Hawke as Everett Lewis. Photo by Duncan Deyoung, Courtesy of Mongrel Media


Ethan Hawke as Everett Lewis and Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis. Photo by Duncan Deyoung, Courtesy of Mongrel Media


The director shows us the process of creation, from Maude’s first look at an outdoor scene, to her translating that view into art.   She says a wonderful thing: “I love a window; the whole of life already framed”.   It’s difficult for her to hold a brush but Maude persists in working her magic.  Literally, out of scraps comes great beauty.   The cinematography wonderfully captures the stark beauty of the Nova Scotia coast as well as Maude’s painting in marvelous closeups.  The soundtrack is lovely and appropriate, notes from a banjo and traditional folk tunes.   But more than anything, the acting here is what distinguishes this fine film.   Both Hawkins as a woman with determination, talent, faith and optimism despite her physical problems, and Hawke, as a first-class curmudgeon.  These performances will surely end up in Academy nominations.  There is very little dialogue, most of which is by Hawkins.  I love and have collected folk art for many years, and was mesmerized by this film.   Maudie is at times sad, disturbing and powerful but never less than wonderful.  Like so many films with great cinematography, this one too should be seen on the big screen.   Running time: 115 minutes.  Opens this Friday at the Embarcadero and possibly elsewhere.  Don’t miss it!   Ciao, Ian


Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis. Photo by Duncan Deyoung, Courtesy of Mongrel Media



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