Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Maud: Reflection and Domination

Maud's View, rug hooking, Laura Kenney

Maud Returns to Point Prim, oil on masonite, Steven Rhude

The Maud Lewis story is by now legend in Nova Scotia and perhaps well on its way to the same status nationally, and no doubt already making inroads internationally. Certain elements stand out. A turn of the twentieth century birth, an unwed mother stricken with severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and the stigma of her child's adoption and denial, strange circumstances leading to a union with a poor and uneducated peddler living in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia,  and a shingle that said "paintings for sale" which was marketed, used and abused by the transition of culture from late capitalism into a neo liberal economy. Combined, these elements shed light on the culture of Nova Scotia rurality, as modernism marched its way past their painted door in Digby County.     




In many respects the Maud story is one of domination, both domestically, socially, and culturally. Maud, dominated by the conventions of the time, subjugated by a peddler from Marshalltown, their situation (especially for Maud) exacerbated as they were eventually left without contemporary transportation.

Assigned to hanging out a shingle "paintings for sale", the new world of the shop window tourist would eventually stop and snatch a piece of rural spirit in the form of panel paintings - some of which were painted on board reclaimed from the adjacent poor house - a dumping ground for orphans and the provincial destitute, and build collections for many elite, like Richard Nixon, that would supply a narrative for decades to come. A bucolic world, promoted, but in reality non existent in terms of Maud's circumstances; a world where the new economic landscape that has led to such catchy marketing phraseology like "you're richer than you think" was greasing its wheels.

Maud in Line to See Maudie, rug hooking, Laura Kenney



The reflection of domination continued into the early 1970's where claims made by ex patriot American professors and collectors like Gerry Ferguson on her legacy and other folk artists within the province, found NSCAD integrating the folk idiom into its conceptualist classroom of alternative selections, as the conservative conventions of landscape and figurative painting traditionally endorsed by educators promoting the academies of European historical derivation were kicked out on their proverbial keester. Maud and folk art was considered cool, and as Erin Morton stated, it was believed by some in the art college that in Nova Scotia "few artistic traditions were worth considering outside of contemporary folk art and even used this theory to explain the development of an internationally recognized conceptual art scene at NSCAD in the 1970's."

 In fact: "Ferguson's interest in folk art, thus, both complimented his own professional art practice and help to construct Nova Scotia's past as one of limited creative capacity due to regional isolation, artistic conservatism, and overall failure of the province's artists to keep pace with transnational late capitalistic economic and cultural developments."[1]

Other institutional players were linked to the theme of domination. Cultural facilitators such as the AGNS has indeed built much of its early reputation on the identity of Maud and in many respects continues to seesaw between the marketing of Maud related merchandise and the deeper meaning of her legacy as a painter. Peddling everything from Maud erasers to coffee mugs, ironically leading us back to Maud's original peddler - here Husband Everett.

The Peddler, oil on Masonite, Steven Rhude
 
The sponsorship of  contemporary art museums directly connects the public with the culture of neo liberal museum development in the 21st century. However more domination reflecting Maud's role is intertwined with the controversy not specifically of her art, but of the past and the image/identity of a lost age of Nova Scotia Folk lifestyle conveyed through marketing strategies. As Erin Morton states in For Folk's Sake: "Given its connection to historical presentist nostalgia for a lost capitalist age, Maud Lewis’s legacy in Nova Scotia continues to be a source of controversy. Yet, once institutional actors such as the AGNS, in partnership with Scotiabank, identified Lewis as a folk artist upon whom they could capitalise, her work no longer operated as items of local exchange or of commemoration within networks of small commodity producers and consumers. In an age of neoliberal museum development, the AGNS’s commodification of Lewis negotiated any contradictions in the historical presentist narrative with ease. The house in a sense became too valuable to leave in Digby County, even if there remained widespread investment in locating Lewis’s memory there. The provincial gallery thus did more than determine the ongoing significance of of Lewis’s place in artistic circles of Nova Scotia. In ways typical of the neoliberal era, the AGNS capitalized significantly on Lewis as a representative of a widespread postwar mythology that the neoliberal fantasy seeks to debunk – namely, dastardly unions and welfare bums getting in the way of hard working people such as Maud and Everett.”[2]

In the end, one might summarise this situation with an analogy staged between Maud and Everett's contributions, and the current industry dominating a seemingly perfuming of our rural conceptions regarding economy and art.
Lance Woolaver, The Heart on the Door: The difference between Maud and Ev is that Maud, for all her losses, built something wonderful out of her broken self. We still have it. Everett, for all his accumulations, would lose everything by theft and death. He got revenge but failed at vengeance. When Everett died the county was indifferent, and in some cases pleased. When Maud died, the county grieved." [3]   

[1] Erin Morton, For Folk's Sake
[2]Erin Morton, Ibid
[3] Lance Woolaver, The Heart on the Door

Steven Rhude Wolfville, NS

Friday, 18 August 2017

Marshalltown 101

Everett's Underwear, rug hooking, Laura Kenney



Marshalltown 101, Poor House Miser, oil on masonite, Steven Rhude

"The development of folk art for a museum audience in the late twentieth-century Nova Scotia coincided with changes in art education and the sales market more generally. Much like conceptualism, contemporary folk art in Nova Scotia became a site for new, academically trained arrivals to explore an artistic counter culture set quite apart from the elite collecting circles across North America that had so marked the early twentieth century and the foundation of most metropolitan art museums, include the NSMFA. The late 1960s and early 1970s had seen an influx of new MFA - degree programs across the United States - fifty three programs in studio art were inaugurated between 1965 and 1974. "  - Erin Morton, For Folk's Sake


 Many trained MFA holders at NSCAD were convinced to rally around alternatively distinctive forms of art - thus folk art became a focal point for artistic discourse within the educational institution. Gerald Ferguson and others brought a framework of folk art to the fine art world while the 1967 Centennial spurred on, along with  government funding, the new AGNS on Hollis Street. However concurrently, Chris Huntington and his collector influence transformed folk art into a museum industry for the AGNS, and, as one can confirm it is still going strong through the profits earned through marketing efforts and Maud Lewis sales today. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/maud-lewis-movie-marketing-campaign-boost-agns-visits-1.4248929

  As Erin Morton says: " an abundance of graduate - trained artist - professors who had a much different experience with the art market than collectors did and struggled to get their own artwork out to commercial galleries. Ferguson found himself at the centre of all these nodes. "

 One could say that the new academy was being formed - one where as Erin Morton pointed out : "Ironically, liberation from the privileged hierarchy of elite collectors and critics also spurred on new class of patrons and institutions around contemporary folk art; in "circumstances antithetical to folk culture itself, a folk art field  - with critics, galleries, collectors, scholars, and even a canon of it's own master works - would be cultivated." [1]



[1] Karp quoted in Ardeny, The Temptation 157

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS

   

Monday, 14 August 2017

Home is where your house is

Home is Where your House Is, rug hooking, Laura Kenney

Marshalltown Road, Fixing it up for Maud, oil on canvas, Steven Rhude

"The AGNS has Maud's house..and when I visit the gallery it feels like Maud is present..as opposed to Marshalltown with the MacKay - Lyons memorial...Maud doesn't live there any more. "Home is where you hang your hat"...I heard that a lot being a military brat..but really it is home is where your house is...and Maud lives in Halifax." - Laura Kenney

"When MacKay - Lyons erected his replica of the of the Lewis home in 1996, Riordon heralded it as "a modern, symbolic steel house" and noted it was the result of "a community effort that reaches beyond the borders of Digby County to embrace the whole province." The AGNS's promotional materials for the event invited interested parties to "visit the original Maud Lewis house, now carefully restored and protected, and to see many of Maud Lewis' paintings and artifacts... [at] the Scotia Bank Maud Lewis Gallery at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax."  [1]

Well, there was one lone voice that was critical of the mostly rust resistant "steel cage" memorial designed by the renowned Nova Scotian modernist. Her name was Bette Saunders of Toronto and she let it be known in a letter to the Digby Courier that the cairn was "a monstrosity and a complete insult to Ms. Lewis... While the structure may be dimensionally correct, as a memorial it should be destroyed...  The memorial makes it look like she lived in a steel cage... it is a waste of money... Whoever is responsible should be ashamed!" [2]

Bette Saunders is not alone nowadays. It may be she has morphed into an activist internet based group phenomenon that relishes the call to destroy public art, or any art for that matter. The ability to  convict artists via an unabated mock public trial, whether it pertains to Danna Schutz's painting of  Emitt Till, statues of Cornwallis, the quantum DNA of Joseph Boydon, or the Govenor General's award to Gord Downie continues. No subject or individual is sacrosanct in today's identity political arena. The carnage flows as we contemplate the war on cultural appropriation and the various activist based groups willing to tear down anything that they might find disagreeable. This is our world today - just follow the facebook page of Canadian Art Magazine for a month and you might find yourself asking what happened to the art?

However, Bette Saunders did inspire one thing for me, a desire to visit the steel cage in Marshalltown and experience for myself if MacKay - Lyons' work conveyed anything of the sustaining spirit of Maud, and whether it levered a sense of the difficult and tragic circumstances that comprised the lives of Maud and Everett. The cage is a replacement to the original dwelling that was moved to the AGNS with the financial assistance of Scotia Bank. But what about the spirit of Maud?

 Frankly, it left me unmoved as does a lot of modernist architecture and memorials do. Steel doesn't absorb sound, it deflects it. There is no respite in this cage from the monologue of steel. Traffic predominates over the sounds of robins chirping in the background. One doesn't sense Maud or Everett - only the tenets of an art movement that ran concurrent to their own anti-modernist lives.

 A house is a living narrative. Wood and plaster absorb the sounds of people, animals, the fog and moisture of a maritime climate; and so speak to the history of the occupants that wear that climate like a suit of skin, the way a stream or river whispers it's own previously undisclosed discourse of the place it cuts though for the individual willing to relinquish their own language.

Were Maud to come back she might be inclined to redecorate the steel cage, the way she inspirited her own house with the sounds and visuals of the world she experienced outside her own window, and the way she redecorated the AGNS with her particular brand of folk imagery without even knowing it.

[1] Erin Morton, For Folk's Sake, pg. 255
[2] Tourism Finds Memorial a Monstrosity [letter to the editor] Digby Courier, April 1998

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS
 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Maud, Everett, Flowers, and that space in between


Flowers for Maud, rug hooking, Laura Kenney


Maud, Everett and that space in between, oil on canvas, Steven Rhude

Artist notebook: Maud & Everett - I can perceive only this for now: that they represent the Woman of the East with the Man of the East. Anti-modernists without knowledge of the term. Vulnerable to the tangled skein of a life choice distortion by those with a penchant for institutionalizing them and Maud's image. Unknown to Maud and Everett, were the terms of an artistic movement that became Nova Scotia's new identity; a simple folk way of life that would become the antidote for a sputtering cultural economy perched in tourism's shop window for all to partake. However, for Maud, the reality was one of making pictures; her only true way out - serial painting, like pop radio plays the top ten hits over and over. Maud made the paintings and Everett pocketed the cash. Modernism passed by their door and a white space between them developed as Maud's popularity grew.

 For Everett, a poor house miser, one wonders if he ever brought Maud flowers? Tucked away in mason jars and a lock box, Everett buried his insecurities in the ground in the form of cash from Maud's painting industry. Everett may have wondered how long this would keep the wolf from his eastern door. However, God caught up with Everett, in the form of an afternoon visit from an evangelical minister named Stephen Wade on new years eve, 1978. God compelled Stephen Wade to go back after passing the tiny house, and save poor Everett. Everett acquiesced, and Stephen Wade left knowing Everett thanked God for saving him. [1]
 
Later that day though, death came looking for Everett in the form of a aggressive youth. Murdered during a struggle after an evening break in by a young man looking for Everett's cash,  this put an end to the life of the peddler of Marshalltown. 


[1] http://sweainc.com/the-maud-and-everett-lewis-story.html


 Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS

       

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Maud returns from the dead

Das Bed├╝rfnis, Leiden beredt werden zu lassen, ist Bedingung aller Wahrheit.

(The need to lend a voice to suffering [literally: "to let suffering be eloquent"] is the condition of all truth)”
― Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics

"The Alternative, the Poor Farm in Marshalltown, out in the country, was run as follows: If an unwed mother, circa 1930, gave birth, she and the child were removed by bailiff to the county of the mother's birth, turned over to the settlement sheriff and locked up with the poor and insane of the settlement county farm. What happened next depended entirely on the worth of the Matron, often the spouse of the keeper, Standards varied." - Lance Woolaver [1]

"Historically, online there is a picture and small blurb about the Poor Farm or Poor House as it was locally known. It is now the site of the Maude Lewis heritage park. "The County Incorporation Act of 1879 stated that each county was now responsible for building their own poor house. The Alms House was built in 1891. There was one prior to this but nothing is known about it. The Alms House became the 'dumping grounds' for single mothers, children, the mentally ill. or anyone else who could not survive independently in the community. As always horror stories of abuse and neglect were familiar. The residents were often at the mercy of the keeper. One keeper, Guy Thomas, was said to have fed half of Digby from the Poor House. In 1963 the Alms House was closed. It burned down in 1995 by an arsonist." - Carol Harding, Genealogist.

Hanging Everett Out to Dry, rug hooking, Laura Kenney

Maud Returns From the Dead (Asylum Road), oil on masonite, Steven Rhude

Artist's Notebook: Why in an age of genetics and Neuroscience, are ghosts still universally accepted?

  A long held belief that ghosts were created at the time of a person’s death inspires a surreal perspective, for the notion that Maud's true story ended in 1970 with her life has no bearing on a painting or a rug hooking, let alone the imagination of the artist behind the work. That Maud may have travelled to the underworld to dwell for a time and then return is the lively stuff of myth and imaginary retribution, a haunting of the mind, yet suggesting two characteristics concurrent with the notion of justice and penance contemplated by the artist.

The first contends with sacrifices from the living, whom the ghost could inflict with punishment or some kind of vengeance - this is the ghost of reprisal and should be considered in terms of Everett Lewis's apparent control over Maud.  What better place for this metaphorical scenario to unfold than the rural backyard clothesline. "Hanging Everett Out to Dry" conveys a multitude of possibilities as Everett ponders his new world upside down and is given time to assess his humorous imprisonment, and what it can mean for him in terms of his relationship with Maud.


The second characteristic contends with the idea that the intentions of ghosts were quite often good and helpful. In Maud's case returning to Marshalltown Road to guide the living to a path of goodness and honour may frame the literal intent of myth, but her own misgivings invariably enter the picture on a less tangible level, but with another ghostly motive.The disconnection between Maud and her orphaned daughter Catherine Dowley lingered unresolved during her life time - it is the job of the ghost (or vicariously through the artist) to seek reconciliation from that which was left irreconcilable.

[1] Maud Lewis, The Heart on the Door by Lance Woolaver
Chapter 31 - Asylum Road, pg. 161

Laura Kenney, Steven Rhude: Saving Maud, Secord Gallery, Halifax NS. opening September 8th, 
2017.

http://www.secordgallery.com/art

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS



Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Day Maud Died

"Who would true valour see,
let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
come wind, come weather.
There's no discouragement,
 shall make him once relent,
 His first avowed intent
 To be a pilgrim." - John Bunyan's Original Version, To be a Pilgrim

The Day Maud Died, rug hooking, Laura Kenney

The Day Maud Died, oil on masonite, Steven Rhude

What constitutes the spirit of a house? This question may indeed point to the reason so many made their way to Maud's house, to meet Maud, and leave with a painting commemorating their journey and experience. A desire to apprehend and understand a particular spirit that was on her own pilgrimage - the sacred site being her own memories of Nova Scotia made manifest through panel boards, paint, and a corner studio with a window. Her grid to a point of departure. Her way out of the restrictions imposed upon her by the conventions of her body and rural society.

However, as much as the tiny house became a barrier to the outside world and the restrictions imposed upon her by her husband Everett - in a physical and psychological sense limiting Maud's freedom; it's window, must have become a buttress of assurance. As she projected her vision outwards, so must have it been reflected back on Maud, knowing her paintings would engage us with her world. A dichotomy between the most personal and public of worlds. A window of equilibrium.

In many respects, The desire to save Maud is a metaphorical one; by focusing on her journey it may be we are as Laura Kenney says: "saving Maud on a bunch of levels....freeing her from Everett... freeing her from her health limitations...", and freeing her from the institutionalizing of a limited image framed in the shop window of historicism, tourism, and public galleries, far from her community of origin. It may be, Kenney goes on to say, "one of the reasons people love Maud so much is that she rose above her circumstances. We are all Maud in this respect...or at least want to be Maud." But this kind of presence can meet with adversity beyond the grave too. 

From Lance Woolaver's The Heart on the Door pg 209: "With Maud, and beginning with a remnant rug, the house became a constant spring of visitors and art. Everett could never countenance this thing, this spark of Maud and the welcoming, warm and human nature of her decorations. He would take the benefits, and claim them, but he never understood what he chanced upon. People think a harvest moon is just for them: As soon as Maud had passed along, he would obliterate every brushstroke and reminder of her presence.

Ev would believe - it does him credit - that there was something in the house that made it special. His belief would become a prophesy... what Everett would do suggested that he knew the house was special, but he never knew why."  

The artist's dream: It was in a solem dream that on the day Maud died, there were flowers and her favourite birds - harbingers of spirit and freedom. In that dream, her funeral was attended by local fishermen who also attended to rescue lifeboats in times of emergency.

Laura Kenney, Steven Rhude: Saving Maud, Secord Gallery, Halifax NS. opening September 8th, 
2017.

http://www.secordgallery.com/art/

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS