Labour of love takes story of Maud Lewis to big screen in 'Maudie'
Actors Sally Hawkins as beloved Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis and Ethan Hawke as Maud's husband, Everett Lewis are shown in this handout image from the movie Maudie. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Mongrel Media)
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- "As long as I've got a brush in front of me, I'm all right."
Beloved Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis spoke those words to a CBC documentary crew in 1965. She was bent over a vibrant Maritime scene painted in her trademark, deceptively simple style. Her hands were so clawed with rheumatoid arthritis it was almost painful to watch her move the brush.
"(I'm) contented right here in this chair," Lewis said as she sat beside the single front window of the tiny wooden house she shared with her husband, Everett, in Marshalltown, N.S.
Inside the home, butterflies and bluebirds swooped past drab, smoke-stained walls and finished paintings that today would fetch thousands of dollars were priced at just $5.
Where less indomitable souls might have seen suffering and deprivation, Lewis saw beauty. That spirit is at the heart of the Canadian-Irish film "Maudie," starring Academy Award nominees Sally Hawkins ("Blue Jasmine") in the title role and Ethan Hawke ("Boyhood") as Everett Lewis.
It was recently picked up by Sony Pictures Classics with distribution rights covering the U.S., the United Kingdom and Latin America.
"It's phenomenal," said St. John's, N.L.-based producer Mary Sexton of the initial response on the film festival circuit, including Telluride in Colorado where it had its world premiere in September. It then screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and will close the St. John's International Women's Film Festival on Sunday.
"It didn't come easy," Jenn Brown, executive director of the festival, said of the perseverance it took for the film's production team.
"I think all of that dedication and investing so much time and energy, just pouring their hearts into it for more than a decade, it shows. And that's the reason why it's doing so well."
Sexton worked almost 12 years along with producer Mary Young Leckie to get the movie made. It was shot across the island of Newfoundland, evoking the seaside landscapes of Digby County, N.S., where Lewis spent most of her life.
"I ain't much for travelling anyway," she said in that 1965 interview, shot just five years before her death at 67. She painted scenes mostly from memory, of farm life, winter sleigh rides, cats framed by cherry tree blossoms, and harbour views with clouds resembling sea gulls.
Humour shows up often, including in her piece "Road Block" as cattle on a country road stop a couple in a flashy red convertible.
"Maudie" tracks her growing success as an artist whose appealing style, free of shadows, drew national media attention in the last years of her life. Former U.S. president Richard Nixon commissioned her work for the White House.
Despite that recognition, she and her husband remained in a home that barely measured four metres by four metres, with a loft sleeping area. It had no electricity or running water.
The unlikely pair met when Everett Lewis, a gruff fish peddler who had grown up an orphan, posted an ad in a local store looking for housekeeping help.
"Maudie" traces how love grew between them.
"It's a very simple life," said director Aisling Walsh. "That simplicity in their lives is what people respond to.
"The most incredible thing is that people go on that emotional journey with them and, at the end of the film, take something away from it."
The couple's little house from Marshalltown was preserved after their deaths and is part of a permanent exhibit at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.
Sexton said their story, written for the screen by Newfoundlander Sherry White, is ultimately one of hope.
"They lived a very hard, hard life and they survived. Through their love and their backbone, they continued to do what they wanted to do and never let anyone else influence their relationship or their lives."