Thursday, 19 July 2018
Tuesday, 3 July 2018
|It's all good. Portrait of Laura Kenney, Rug Hooker|
“Steven Rhude and I had an exhibit titled "Saving Maud' at Secord Gallery in Halifax, Sept 2017.
Through Steven's paintings and my rug hookings we examined Maud Lewis's life, her struggles,
and upon her death, the stewardship of her art and house to the wider commercial
and institutional establishments. We wanted to give a fuller understanding of Maud's life
and a factual record...and we have more to say. - Laura Kenney, Rug Hooker
Note to self on Maud: What constitutes the material of a life lived in the unforgiving spotlight of poverty? And what does it mean to us today? Why does a folk painter stand out for public scrutiny, yet, as we can see and confirm for ourselves, through a life suspended in the vague records of a modernist era gone by, with blurry black and white photographs and film footage suggesting, but not quite defining, the ethos of a person, a woman, a painter, and in many respects, this person called Maud, continues to remain an enigma - even as the colour of her life is realized.
Note to self on Rug Hooker: For the rug hooker, whether it is the material of a physical life, or the material of a spiritual life, textile is the one true conduit to understanding for the purpose of expression. For the painter it may be linseed oil and earth on linen, but for the hooker, it is burlap, wool, sari ribbon, or cotton, materials born generally and historically out of forced labour. The history of textile is one of slavery. The above portrait of Laura Kenney may be defined easily as a portrait of an artist in her studio. Or, an artist at work. Or, an artist at work with materials at her disposal. Nothing more and nothing less. Yet, textile is an underrated material in an age of the computer monitor. A high resolution picture of a rug hooking can be seductive; the ribbons of exotically coloured strips of material integrated into a conceptually pixelated sense of logic do leave us curious, but not in the same state as when we can view the actual article, and ponder its material origins. Conclusion - it is more than an artist in the studio.
Note to self on Maud: She did the unforgivable for the times, to be single and to get pregnant was a sure
ticket to the poor farm. The only alternative would be to go underground.
Note to self on Rug Hooker : Maud has no features, as in every character that figures in a Kenney rug. It's a
line up that is without end. We supply the identity.
Note to self on Everett: As a former inmate, and later a night watchman, he held the keys to the poor farm.
His ghosts chant something ambiguous, but today it sounds like #Metoo.
Notes to self on Maud: Supposedly a timeless theme for artists - the woman in a bath.
However, this in not Bonnard's woman lounging after a brisk day of sailing, or a woman from Degas' perspective,
reclining in a Bourgeois Parisian apartment bath with staff just around the corner. There is no perfume for a
voyeur's pleasure. This is the result of no running water, and a friend named Olive Hayden.
It is paradise if ever so brief.
Note to self on Rug Hooker: One can only conclude that she envisioned the sleeping quarters opposite to our
cherished understanding of privacy, and the need for some art; that is to provide some light
in the middle of dark and troublesome dreams.
Note to self on a graveyard with the unidentified: Maud had a penchant for altering the prevailing logic
of a season. A spring tree in winter, or fresh flowers in a barren winter landscape graveyard. Seems a fitting
note of sanctification.
Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS
Wednesday, 27 June 2018
|Poor Farm, Steven Rhude, oil on canvas, 60" x 126"|
Chapter 52 (EXCERPT from MAUD LEWIS THE HEART ON THE DOOR by author Lance Woolaver)
"Eventually, helpfully, at the intercession of Benoit Comeau, Lita was released from her cell. In her decades of isolation she had forgotten how to speak. She was unable to explain or to describe the years that she had spent. She had gone into the poorhouse a young spinster and come out old and mute. She would spend the years until her death in 1983 in a Yarmouth home for the elderly. She played cards. She recovered some use of speech. Her story would be included in a 1999 CBC radio series with Ron Foley MacDonald and Medard Comeau.
The story of Maud Lewis, had she been incarcerated, could have been similar to that of Lita Saulnier. The story of Lita Saulnier was not unique. A poorhouse in Halifax would contribute an account of a woman kept in an underground cage. Several Nova Scotia Keepers were imprisoned. Two, at least, including one in Marshalltown, Digby County, were hung. That Everett Lewis could be employed as Night Watchman, and be given the keys to the womens’ wards, would make many shudder. Other watchmen and keepers would be discretely replaced. And still others were too well placed, in the politics of their county, to be touched.
Throughout the 1940's and into the 1960's, Maud Lewis was able to visit with the Thomases and the Haydens in the Poor Farm. The wards, total of four, were the Poor Men's, the Poor Women's, the Insane Men's, and the Insane Women's. The Strong Room was in the basement and generally housed only men. The Keeper’s Quarters were closed to the inmates, but Poor Women could come to the door. The toilets and baths of the Insane wards were strictly regulated. A Poor Man or a Poor Woman could bathe without supervision. An Insane Man or Woman could not. Poor Women could smoke in a supervised hour. Insane Women, at times, could not: It depended upon the severity of their affliction. As in all cases of restraint and incarceration, “smokes” became currency.
How strictly these regulations were upheld might vary among the Keepers. All inmates, however, were locked up at night. In Marshalltown the Insane Women were not shackled every night, but only if restive. Maud preferred to use the Poor Women’s: A bath could be taken, in the Poor Women’s, without supervision." - Lance Woolaver
|Once a Poor Farm|
About five months after my last trip to Marshalltown, we're driving back to the tract of land that has inhabited our creativity and studio practice for a while now. As the rain diminishes, Poor Farm mortality and the indifference of history gnaws at us as we pass the odd road side abandoned house, decaying with the rich contrast of abundant new vegetation engulfing their wooden husks.
It's summer now and my companion is Laura Kenney, a rug hooker who has equally shared this decent into the uncomfortable history of a metaphysical house next door to the late folk painter Maud Lewis, and her murdered husband Everett. Our work done, the results of our exhibit "Whose Maud?" hang back on the walls of Acadia University Art Gallery in Wolfville, "researching, repositioning, and reconsidering" as Curator Dr. Laurie Dalton points out while visitors consider Whose Maud?
The construction of a new highway is evident to us as a clear cut corridor reveals its route behind the house that Maud once lived and painted in. It skirts closely the location where the Poor Farm stood, with two graveyards of now identified (and many still unidentified) inmates. The old saying "you can bury a body, but not the truth" is apt for this place. A memorial will eventually be constructed and sanctification will become a reality. Countless cars and trucks will drive by continuously with a digital map as a guide; the new world order will continue as the wraiths of inmates - those dead and unborn, vaporise back into the bogs and streams that provide nourishment for this painfully beautiful part of Digby County.
Yet if a place speaks to us through memory, then the Maud Lewis and Poor Farm narrative that has been uncovered by writers, poverty activists, a curator, painters and rug hookers, may still struggle to find coherence with Maud's Folk Art rise to apotheosis. I suppose a story like this will always contain multiple truths and personalities. Contrary to suggestion, "Whose Maud?" is not a swipe at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Our research may be somewhat at odds with the cheerful branding of Maud Lewis by the vision of an art museum far away in Halifax, but our compulsion to complete the equation had to reach beyond merchandise, gift shop sales, and a well established brand.
Perhaps art gallery board rooms are not the place for uncomfortable tales of poverty and abuse, or the ostensible ownership of an artist's legacy. It's hard not to admit these are difficult issues to deal with. Making poverty popular is a very unpopular exercise. Poking around the logic of museum branding is usually met with quiet indifference by an administrative establishment. These days, developing a museum “brand” is a complicated task. The visual identity of an arts institution has to attract visitors and donors, volunteers and fundraisers, and it also has to say something about the curatorial vision of a museum both past and into the future.
However, the gulf between the two Mauds is now evident to many, something that is important and can't be avoided. Questions have been tendered, and answers are now being proffered. In re framing Maud with the poor farm connections, the role of the artist is evident as it should be in a cultural exhumation such as this.
Laura and I make a stop at the steel cage, a minimalist memorial to a house that was both a studio and prison for Maud. In a last homage, we install some of Laura's hooked rugs. No one stops to inquire what we're doing. Its hard to compare the experience of visiting the cage with what would have once been a visit to two anti modernists living in a real house with a wood stove and bread baking.
|The Steel Cage, Installation of rug hookings, Laura Kenney, Steven Rhude|
The cage window signifies to us that Maud did after all have a room with a view, depending on the viewer. This window has indeed acquired a pedigree of its own, while at the same time relating to the contemporary context of the #metoo movement. Questions swirl around the cage and I have Lita Saulnier on my mind.
Laura hangs a work called "Maud; AGNS employee of the month" on the cage window, a cheeky look into the servitude still associated with Maud's artistic labor. Back in Halifax an annual general meeting takes place and reveals gallery visitation is up from 37,000 in 2016/2017 to 64,729 in 2017/2018. Gift shop sales have gone from $114,000 to $549,000.
Some achievements can be neatly summerized on a balance sheet - and some can't. A word to the wise: ordinary benchmarks can't be used to measure artistry. Maud Lewis slipped a little joy into our pockets and then quietly slipped away. Today, loud eighteen wheelers clatter by as we video and photograph the work for the record. And so it goes.
Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS
Sunday, 27 May 2018
I've always been intrigued by the narrative of space, or perhaps 'absence' is a better word for it. The idea that an image can convey something that is about to happen, or likewise convey something that has already occurred. The coast of Nova Scotia is richly imbued with this quality.
Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS
|Kayak and Scull, Cheverie, 37" x 97", private colloction|
Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS
Friday, 25 May 2018
"Before flat-bottomed paper bags, shoppers carried purchases in wooden crates or rolled into paper cones. At best, they got wimpy envelopes that tapered into a V-shape, which everyone knows are barely durable enough for greeting cards.
The force behind those sturdy Whole Foods paper bags you can reuse a hundred times: Margaret E. Knight. In 1868, Knight invented a wooden machine that folded and glued paper into an economical, roomy, and rectangular receptacle.
Then a man stole her idea."
|#WhoseMaud, drawing on paper bag, 20"x16", Steven Rhude|
The brown paper bag is an unlikely candidate for artistic expression. It is at once a utilitarian object with symbolic commercial properties, and a receptacle of goods and essentials. From the common brown bagged lunch, to the grocery bag, I recall it being present in our household, as it served many containment purposes and even still holds a crackling audio memory for me as it was folded up for potential reuse and put away in a kitchen drawer. Later on at art college, serious drawing was to be done on finely milled 100% rag papers, etchings and lithographs were similarly to be printed on acid free designated papers usually of European origin. Artistically, the common paper bag was sometimes a still life object used in drawing exercises to study the surface planar structure of three dimensional forms. It never occurred to me at the time it held potential as a drawing surface in itself.
The following series of bag drawings delves into the legacy of Maud Lewis, Folk painter, and the campaign by Scotia Bank to attach their branding to her life and art through the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's folk art collection and programming objectives. Using Maud's apron as a pretext for examining issues of identity, copyright, and the bank slogan forms the intent. Indeed in arts and culture in general, all of the big banks in Canada have become a constant corporate partner with art, shifting our perspective on art's value to community and the marketplace. Within the drawings are three altered bank slogans and bank colours synonymous with the post modern consumer.
Subsequent to the apron drawings are a series of pauper drawings on paper bags. By now more has been uncovered on Maud's connection to her neighbouring Poor Farm and its residents. Source material for the portraits are linked back to the Victorian era in England, a period that comprised and influenced much of our contemporary perceptions of poverty and the modern welfare state.
|#Whoseidentity, drawing on paper bag, 20" x 16", Steven Rhude|
|#Averytimelyinvestment, drawing on paper bag, 20" x 16", Steven Rhude|
|#Forwhatmattersinlife, drawing on paper bag, 20"x16", Steven Rhude|
|#Readyforyou, drawing on paper bag, 20"x16", Steven Rhude|
|#Maud'srealsocks, drawing on paper bag, 20"x16", Steven Rhude|
|#pauper1, drawing on paper bag, 20" x 16", Steven Rhude|
|#pauper2, drawing on paper bag, 18" x 16", Steven Rhude|
|#pauper3, drawing on paper bag, 20" x 16", Steven Rhude|
|#pauper4, drawing on paper bag, 20" x 16", Steven Rhude|
|#pauper5, drawing on paper bag, 20" x 16", Steven Rhude|
Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS
Monday, 30 April 2018
|#VisitingDay, oil on masonite, 20" x 16", Steven Rhude|
“If we know in what way society is unbalanced, we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter scale ... we must have formed a conception of equilibrium and be ever ready to change sides like justice, 'that fugitive from the camp of conquerors'.” - Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
|Crime? Child out of Wedlock, Rughooking, Laura Kenney|
"So please state your name and where you come from... and let us know what inspires you about Nova Scotia." - Workshop Facilitator
I'll confess it caught me off guard. Ten years ago it wouldn't have, since a general appreciation of our province's natural beauty, or traditions would have sufficed as an answer. Yet this is 2018, and my focus had been changing to something quite the opposite of conventional inspiration.
The unsanctified, at least in the sense of those that were without moral or social sanction, like Maud and Everett Lewis were, are now part of a sanctified Folk Art tradition that emerged in tandem with the Poor Farm era and Modernism. However, the narrative inherent with Poor Farms was oddly left out of the equation as Nova Scotians preferred to identify with the designation of Folk Art crafted and defined by academics and scholars. A designation for the cultural shop window that appealed to the nostalgic perspective of a simple and bucolic life without the specter of Poor Farms, inmates, and abuse to taint it.
|Laura Kenney, Maud's in the Ward, Rug Hooking|
So mine, and Laura Kenney's work of late, is inspired by what? Perhaps it is a return to set the record straight... or at least a little bit straighter than it currently is. Our sources are a continued collaboration with each other through correspondence, Maud Lewis' biographer Lance Woolaver, archival Victorian images of Poor Farms, Poor Houses, the harmless insane, and inmate accounts, as well as the Marshalltown Alms House - Voices of Hope group. Perhaps comprised it is also a means to add weight to the lighter scale as Simone Weil concluded, to provide moral and social sanction to what was omitted the first time around through the offering of art.
|#SaneInsane, oil on masonite, 20" x 16", Steven Rhude|
It’s hard to believe that Maud Dowley, growing up in relative secure circumstances in the seaport of Yarmouth could have imagined that one day she would live with, and marry a former poor house inmate named Everett Lewis, and have as her next door neighbours the respective and imposing Alms House and its inmates. Yet located on, and set back from the highway, on an isolated stretch of road in the tiny community of Marshalltown, this facility would hold sway over the future of many individuals, their families, both identified and unidentified - and ironically, such was to be Maud’s destiny as well.
The romantic conclusion of Maud and Everett as depicted in the recent film 'Maudie', deviates from a modernist tale of abuse and captivity, both psychological and physical, along with probable malnutrition. It was hardly a thirty year love story. Maud's real circumstances in her tiny house next to the poor farm, her life and art really can't be fully comprehended without contextualizing it within the larger picture of this facility and it's wider influence over the modernization of rural Nova Scotia's marginalization and socializing of the poor.
|#Unsanctified, oil on canvas, 20" x 16", Steven Rhude|
To think that this chapter is merely a foot note in Nova Scotia's history is to overlook the contemporary social issues ranging from the modern welfare state, to that of captivity, in all it's various social guises. The Poor Farm is a modern metaphorical tale whereby our collective concerns about being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space, have been housed, but not necessarily cared for or nurtured. It is a metaphysical prison that haunts us to this day.
|Laura Kenney, Maud's in the Dining Room, Rug Hooking|
|#Harmless, oil on canvas, 20" x 16", Steven Rhude|
This is another installment into the exploration of Maud, Marshalltown, and the legacy of Poor Farms in Nova Scotia. We look forward to the upcoming book to be launched in May by Brenda Thompson titled: A Wholesome Horror; Poor Houses in Nova Scotia.
Brenda Thompson's Book Launch: Sunday, May 20 at 2 PM - 4 PM
Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS