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 fish shed procured from the town of Digby, Nova Scotia, and moved to an adjacent lot bordering the Poor 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