Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Scene of the Crime (My trip to the AGNS)

Installation view of Maud Lewis House, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, photo, Steven Rhude

Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Whenever the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is mentioned, invariably the Folk Art painter, Maud Lewis and her house comes to mind. Probably the most photographed house in Nova Scotia, this quaint little dwelling was restored to its former glory beginning in 1996 with funds from the federal Department of Canadian Heritage, and a little help from Scotia Bank.
 At the time, Scotia Bank was on a marketing quest to show a new regional face to the world. An image of connection with the common folk that was certain to garner a favorable response as the big bank aligned itself with arts and culture and the roots of Nova Scotia. And yet ironically, nothing was mentioned about the origins of the house to the public. Rather, the marketing campaign was designed to focus on resurrecting Maud Lewis’s colourful home and her cheerful disposition for an eager public. The house was relocated from Marshalltown to Halifax for restoration, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia was on its way to branding their folk identity for years to come with the financial assistance of Scotia Bank.
In all probability, Maud's house, as it has come to be known, was a utility shed procured from a Poor Farm in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, and moved to an adjacent lot bordering the farm by Everett Lewis, a local fish peddler.

 Once an inmate, and later employed as a night watchman at the Marshalltown Poor Farm, Everett Lewis acquired the tiny house to live in while still single. Later on, Everett married Maud Dowley after the couple met when Maud answered Everett's advertisement for a house keeper.

Maud Lewis House Interior, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, photo, Steven Rhude

 So how does one explain to the innocent tourists, as they trundle through the Maud Lewis Gallery 
ongoing exhibition, at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, that the precious little house they are gazing into is really a place of complex abuse, and a documented crime scene; the site of the murder of Everett Lewis, a locally known miser, scrounger, and peddler, that used Maud as a servant and cash cow until exhausted, and possibly malnurished, she ran out of energy and time?

Exterior Window, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, photo, Steven Rhude
It’s been said, you can bury a body, but you can't hide the truth. Everett Lewis was a victim of a 1979 new year's eve home invasion that went terribly wrong, but you may need to do a little research to determine this - it's not on any of those interpretive panels memorializing Maud in the gallery that has become a testament to her legacy as a smiling and simple Folk icon - Nova Scotia’s Patron Saint of Art. Neither is the fact that Maud once had a child out of wedlock long before answering Everett’s advert. When looking at Maud's colourful paintings there are no clues, no signs of tension or angst that could lead one to deduce something was incongruent with her life and relationship with Everett. So it also was with the painted house interior, how could anything abusive occur in such an adorned and humble environment?
 The campaign to sugar coat Maud is so historically imbedded in the shop window of the Province of Nova Scotia, that the idea that Maud's house was indeed also a murder scene might undo years of careful image crafting and identity cultivation. Like a clever real estate agent, Museum directors tended to overlook details that may sully a cultural house of Folk identity. Murder being one of them, may not inspire visitors to exit through the gift shop after years of believing in a narrative of the happy tiny house and its cheerful folksy inhabitants.
If anything, the relationship of Maud and Everett was not a thirty year love story. The real Maud story is common to the reality of today's art world, and provides a lens into one of exploitation, distortion, misuse and greed. This seems to generally disconcert those that align themselves with the latter concept of industry and profit aimed at defining her legacy through auction results and merchandise, rather than her poverty, regionalism, vision, and artistic practice - something that would defy today's current world of art criticism, and its  pervasive attention to post modern truth, artspeak, and identity politics.

Maud Lewis House Interior, TV tray easel, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, photo, Steven Rhude
It's an old game, and one that has now developed an efficient and sanitised public face.  Probing the deeper aspects of Maud’s art and life that were essentially anti-modernist, is still possible, despite the  historic narrative of the 1980’s and 90’s. Lance Woolaver’s recent biography on Maud Lewis, “The Heart on the Door”, shines an alternative light into Maud’s life and leaves one with a fresh perspective on a relationship that was anything but a bucolic love story between two rural Nova Scotians making a go of it in the post war years. After reading Woolaver’s biography one concludes this is not a happy house installed in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, no matter what the promotional material may tell us.
 So the question lingers; can the house of a female painter from a period of rural Nova Scotia's modernisation, today, begin to change our view of a happy, nostalgic perspective on a simple folk way of life, and turn our gaze toward a question of cultural and poverty related exploitation?  Only if the truth matters.  
 Maud was a serial painter, repeating stock images over and over to supply a tourist market that passed by her door. Her subject matter, and related rural experience, and the regional discourse her art was intended to revolve around, was one steeped in an anti modernist perspective. Many rural Nova Scotians were highly suspicious of government policies and  capitalistic encroachment back in the 1940's to 1950's. Everett never allowed electricity into their home, and dealt mostly in cash. So as Maud painted, Everett pocketed the day’s profit, storing large amounts in lock boxes and mason jars ostensibly buried on his property. When Everett lost his job at the Poor Farm owing to its closure in 1962, the pressure for Maud to meet the demand for her work increased dramatically. Eight years later Maud died. Nine years after Maud’s death, Everett was murdered. 

The Other Window, Maud Lewis House Interior, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, photo, Steven Rhude
Still, in terms of Maud's identity, it quickly was co-opted by the agency of the market place and their facilitators, and channelled through the standard rhetoric of news agencies uninterested in the real Maud, her time, and the larger picture of poverty, but rather the touristic cultural exchange of wares and their increase in value. In reality, co-opting our interest through this imaginary Maud has come with a hefty price tag, because the shadow of poverty that was cast over herself and her circumstances with Everett was more pervasive than we chose to acknowledge, and may be now coming back to haunt us as austerity measures are imbedded throughout the world while the rich/poor gap widens.

Marshalltown Alms House circa 1910, source unknown.
The origin of the cast shadow was not far from where Maud and Everett lived, in fact it was only yards away on an adjacent property in the form of the Marshalltown Poor House. But this is not a photograph you will see in the Maud Lewis gallery, or while exiting through the gift shop. 

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, Nova Scotia



Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Hooker - and some notes

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

What really happened in Marshalltown - part 2

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)

Lita Saulnier

"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.

Water Narrative

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

Friday, 25 May 2018

A Paper Bag Hero is Something to Be

"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

Maud's Neighbours and the house of the Unsanctified

#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

Sissiboo Coffee Roaster Cafe Annapolis Royal
262 St. George St., Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Maud's Funeral; Inmates Return

Maud's Funeral; Inmates Return, oil on canvas, 60" x 86", Steven Rhude

"In this dream play, the author has, as in his former dream play, To Damascus, attempted to imitate the inconsequent yet transparently logical shape of a dream. Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Time and place do not exist; on a significant bases of reality, the imagination spins, weaving new patterns; a mixture of memories, experiences, free fancies, incongruities and improvisations. The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble. But one consciousness rules over them all, that of the dreamer; for him there are no secrets, no illogicalities, no scruple, no laws. He neither acquits or condemns, but merely relates; and, just as a dream is often more painful than happy, so an undertone of melancholy and of pity for all mortal beings accompanies this flickering tale."[1]

Fool: "Where you been Jester? How's retirement treating you?"

Jester: "Lots of golf, bought a heavenly camper trailer - travel from course to course."

Fool: "Bored stiff ain't you?"

Jester: "Actually, I do miss my old haunts a bit. Tell me more about Maud; I've been following your hauntings between rounds. She intrigues me."

Fool: "Well, she lived with a former inmate peddler by the name of Everett Lewis, painted, and died in a never heard of place called Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. Lately, I've been wondering about her funeral."

Jester: "What about it?"

Fool: "Well, you may be retired, but you most likely recall that in the world of mortals, public standing has become intimately linked with the importance one had earned in the eyes of one's fellow men. So who shows up counts for these folks. These guys think that no man's reputation could be assured until the moment of his death. For the rich and successful, for those with social ties, the funeral could be anticipated with equanimity. Not so for the poor and friendless; it haunted them as the specter of failure does." [2]


Jester: "So Maud was poor, and you think by haunting this most bankrupt form of human measurement you can change things. Maybe tamper with history a bit? Re calibrate some facts and wash away this specter of failure. Got some news for you, I know that specter, not a pleasant jester that one. He's a dystopian kind of guy, likes the status quo - he's one of the reasons I haunt no more and now play golf. Glad you have some work though. Anyways, from what I've learned about your hauntings, I think Maud was a saint, hope her funeral was respectably attended. Did you say you were there?"

Fool: "I was, but more importantly so were a band of poor farm inmates that knew Maud. She lived right next door to the Marshalltown Alms House, even took baths there and had her hair done by the matron. Maud gave paintings to her and she then displayed them in the poor house. Cheered the place up I imagine."

Jester: "Did anyone see these inmates? I mean failure sometimes makes one invisible like us."

Visiting Hours (Maud's other sign), Laura Kenney, Rug Hooking

Fool: I doubt it. However, one inmate told me about the day Maud brought over a sign she painted for the poor house denoting visiting hours. Made his day just thinking about having a visitor. Later on the farm was shuttered, the sign for the Poor Farm Alms House (hours of visitation) was on the south side of the driveway leading down the hill to the front. It was gone, spongy and in little fragments (almost like mush) by the 1990's." [3]

Jester: "Sad, I hear Maud had a flare for signs. Where was Maud buried?"

Fool: "Outside of Digby - North Range Mountain."

Jester: "Where were the inmates buried when the poor house was operational?"

Fool: "Oh right on the poor farm grounds, many in unmarked graves. Bulldozed over later by a strawberry farm operation - couldn't get enough labour to make a go of it, wonder why. Who knows how many are really down there, we may never find out. Maybe that's why they attended Maud's funeral, to pay respects to one that beat the specter. Their own funerals were a lonely event - inmates even built caskets down in the poor farm basement. There's something to think about, I mean, wondering who the casket your working on is for, or if it may be your own. Orders for casket planks and studs, metal plates and pal bearer handles - makes death seem like an assembly line. Anyways,  there's always connections that don't want the past dug up. Don't want to get their hands dirty. Isn't that why we haunt?"

Jester: "Hmm... I suppose -  no easy task that, beating the specter that is."

Fool: No, I dare say it wasn't."

Jester: "What happened to the peddler?"

Fool: He sold off everything of Maud's he could, I suspect trying to cleanse himself of her spirit. His own spirit being so plundered by then. Later on he was murdered."

Jester: "A sad tale. What became of these inmates? The poor, mentally ill, physically destitute?"

Fool: "Scattered; most likely to other institutions or just sent adrift."

Jester: "Ah, the Hotel Poor Farm; you can check out anytime, but you can never leave."

Fool: "Sounds like a pop song, but ya, more or less. I haunted an English work house from the 1750's and noticed the inmates were allowed to go to town, but they had a "P" sewn onto their lapels denoting them as being from the poor house. "

Jester: "Cruel. I recall an old joust I had with the specter, he took umbrage with some criticism I made about the popularity of burial insurance, how it testifies to a determination to avoid the fate of the pauper's pit, personal degredation and lack of independance. [4] Seems to me this haunting won't find closure for a while."

Fool: "Most likely not, more work to do."

Jester: "Just one more thing about Maud. How did she prevail, you know with all of the issues both domestic and physical?"

Fool: "Not sure really, she just sat by a window and painted - faced the specter head on I suppose. Come to think of it, I recall an inmate mentioning her painting, a kind of philosophy of sorts... something about “a window, the whole of life, already framed”.  One could only assume that simple phrase sums up what she did. Can't remember the inmate's name though."

Jester: "Keep digging, it'll come to you."

Foot note: The painting "Maud's Funeral, Inmates Return" is purely fictional on my part. I apologise in advance for upsetting the factualists out there. But paintings come from the nether world of dreams as much as the harsh cold light of reality. And so this one conforms to the former. The premise that a band of poor, destitute, mentally ill, physically neglected men, marginalized by the modernist steam roller, would organize and pay their respects to a female folk painter buried in a child's coffin, eight years or so after their primary residence was closed down, and after they were probably dispersed to other institutions, certainly didn't happen - at least not to my knowledge.

However, these men did have voices, and like actors in a play they vicariously convey something about their own condition and the memory of a woman with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, who painted simple bucolic scenes of Nova Scotian hills and ports, tulips and bluebirds, and cars stopped in the road by oxen. It was the least they could do, after all Maud Lewis graced their world when there might not have been a lot to celebrate. Maud was their next door neighbour, a rural legend in the making. Her paintings were the talk of the region. Some may have even hung in their house - a poor house gallery that upon closure probably supplied a lot of wall board for Maud to continue painting until her death.

[1] Strindberg's preface to A Dream Play (Ett drömspel), 1901
[2] Thomas Laqueur, "Bodies, Death and Pauper Funerals," Representations 1 (1983): pg. 109
[3] Lance Woolaver - in conversation
[4] Self Help: Pauper and Public Death              




Friday, 26 January 2018

What really happened in Marshalltown?

"In 1851 including idiots and imbiciles, there was one insane person for every 593 of the population; in 1861 this ratio had risen to one in 504; while in 1871 there was no less than one to 309." He further noted that "the advance of the population was at 40 percent, while the number of those with unsound mind increased 169 percent in the same period."

 - Dr. DeWolfe, Report of the inspector of Humane Institutions April1, 1955 to March 31, 1956, Province of Nova Scotia

Poor Farm, oil on canvas, 60" x 128", Steven Rhude


 This time of year dodging the weather is an art form in itself - the two hour journey from Wolfville to Marshalltown on a two lane highway must be timed accordingly and approached with caution. Winds from the north mountain can easily buffet a car as one contemplates their destination. On other occasions, engulfed in white outs, I've turned back; "keep your eye on the road mister." That said, driving through Marshalltown, Nova Scotia on a cold and overcast January day can be bleak for the most optimistically minded. Maudlin scrapyards, automotive shops, and a peppering of utilitarian small businesses line the highway of mostly CMHC bungalows, in direct contrast to the vistas and architectural temptations the traveller encounters while skirting the more scenic area of Digby,  and small communities like Smith's Cove, Bear River, and Plympton.

Poor Farm detail, Maud, and Maud as a child, Steven Rhude

Just west of the notorious "steel cage", a rusting MacKay Lyons monument to a roadside house once inhabited by a fish peddler and his advert housekeeper, the spirited painter Maud Lewis, there is a tract of land where once a Poor Farm stood. It still seems like a haunting location for a Dickensian world that was brought into being in Nova Scotia by various incorporated acts obviously linked to bureaucratic esoterica and data remote from the reality of human poverty. Rather, it seemed more concerned with controlling the dangerous classes. This haunting is probably not due to the mostly over grown landscape that now meets the eye (its amazing how nature can reclaim human cultivation), but the accounts and memories that still populate the minds of those with relatives associated with the place, and a long history of poverty, infirmary, abuse - both physical and no doubt psychological too.

Generally referred to as the "Poor Farm", and historically significant, is the connection that Everett Lewis had to it as an inmate, and later his wife Maud Lewis. Equally significant to the facility is the inclusion of two cemeteries. Today, in these cemeteries are buried a large number of recently identified individuals associated with the poor farm Alms house ( a list that is still incomplete but growing thanks to Faye Lent and Brenda Small) chronicling its lifespan as an Colonialist institution with a legacy and template dating well back to the workhouses of England and the inhuman treatment of the poor. Not a pretty picture, but one that needs to face the mirror.

I pull my car into the driveway of the property, and with a photo reproduced in a book taken shortly before the Poor House burned down by the hand of an arsonist, I position myself roughly where the photographer and Maud Lewis biographer Lance Woolaver was, when the camera shutter opened and closed - recording a ruin in its dying moments. But it didn't die in Lance's mind, or a cast of others concerned with its legacy.

Detail - Poor Farm, Steven Rhude

 But sorry, no ghosts or voices moaning that I can easily register- just the brittle wind snapping at the trees. But an image does come to mind. It's a rug hooking by Laura Kenney, and it's a strange place to conjure up some textile when what I really want is the warmth and comfort of the car:

 The work transposes a Maud Lewis oxen painting with two male cruciform inmates from the Poor Farm, emphasizing the severity of accounts that reflect a veritable history of incarceration of one form or another. The yoke of subjugation and poverty run deep here and humor as they say, makes the unbearable, bearable.  

Inmates, rug hooking, Laura Kenney

 Flipping through notes, a passage from an account of researched abuses comes to mind, ironically entombed in an provincial environmental assessment:

February 2017/ Davis MacIntyre and Associates Limited

The following account from this report provides ample insight into the conditions and
behaviour relevant to the times of the Poor Farm:

“These people were subject to beatings quite frequent[ly]. In case of death many were
buried on the place. They had graveyards there. The people staying there looked after
the dead and built their own coffins in the basement. They would put a person in a
rough box right off the bed, take him down to the field and bury him just like an
There was a man from the North Range area who had died. They sent him down to the
Catholic Church in Plympton to be buried. The priest had to view the remains - that
was part of his job. When he opened the rough box, the man in question was in the
rough box without a stitch of clothes on, just lying on an old blanket that wasn’t fit to
take to the dump.

Their was another man at the poor farm from the Doucetteville area. He was elderly
and quite ill at the time. A priest from Plympton went to the Poor Farm to give the man
his last rites. On arriving at the farm the priest and the alter boy were turned away by
the keeper and not allowed to go in. The priest got in charge of the man who was in
charge of the doings of things at the Poor Farm. He made sure the priest and altar
boy were allowed to go in. They got to the man’s room and found him face down on a
sheet with no clothes on and a very large gash behind his right ear. It had been made
with a blunt instrument. This was way back before Alton [Halton] Haydon took over.

[...] if a young lady [who was pregnant and unmarried] was taken there and had a long
list of mentally ill in her family, she was made to do extra duties in order to have a
miscarriage. After she had the baby, nothing was done to keep the babies alive, and
they were generally thrown in the furnace.”

 I turn back onto route 101 and the communities go by in a blur. Around Ducetteville  the car radio blisters out commentary and "#metoo" hashtags. I wonder what Maud would have made of a hashtag? Women marching and Nova Scotian politicians dropping like flies. Hollywood embroiled in a celebrity gender war of sexual abuse and misconduct - lawyers ringing their hands with glee, male sexual predators devoured by social media - ground up like worms in an old Pink Floyd video.

Prostitute, Spinster, Unwed Mother, rug hooking, Laura Kenney

But then one may wonder what is so significant about Maud's "three pussy cats" ( God knows she painted enough of them), and what exactly makes Kenney's take on it so current? Could one ever look at those cats in the same way?  A prostitute, a Spinster, and an Unwed Mother?

Were we only to learn how to "become good animals" as a friend once conveyed to me from some distant shore across the pond of the internet. The radio is abstract - and the announcer equally so - he has never heard of Laura Kenney, and Marshalltown is only a brief stop on a litany of formulaic weather reports.

However, perhaps I did here the murmuring of some ghosts while observing the Poor Farm in January - in that brittle wind. Maybe through the wind they were saying "Me Too."

Steven Rhude Wolfville, NS