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