Friday, 1 February 2019

Saving Everett; An interview with Steven Rhude

by Simone Labuschagne

 
Saving Everett, oil on canvas, 40" x 90", Steven Rhude

 

SL: I've lived with you for over thirty years now, in cities, towns, and remote regions, seen a lot of your art go under the bridge, observed your creative process from afar and up close, modeled for you, painted with you, taught with you, criticized you when it was needed, and discussed and debated art with you for countless hours. However, I've never anticipated a painting like this coming from you - that is one depicting a murder scene. It seems, along with other things, the Maud Lewis legacy has preoccupied you for some time now, ever since your show at Acadia University Art Gallery with Laura Kenney https://laurakenneyhandhookedrugs.blogspot.com/.

 

So, tell me why did you make this painting?

 

SR: There are paintings that I want to do, and there are paintings that I have to do... I suppose Saving Everett falls into the latter category - it needed to be said. 

 

SL: Ok, so what is it you are saying here... the title alludes to saving Everett... but I mean when I look at it there are three figures in the painting, one of them dead. Perhaps you could explain why?

 

 SR: First I should explain that the whole thing is a tangled skein of small narratives making up one big narrative - the big one being the artistic and anti modernist legacy that Maud and Everett's life reflected, and which eventually influenced Nova Scotia's image/identity... and then how they have been reduced to token saints of a bygone era by the Art establishment. After the Acadia show with Laura Kenney, I was restless... people were asking and writing Laura and I to know if the show was going to travel, which was flattering but we both thought there was more to do; things needed to be pursued.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCLo4RcwJNE The story didn't stop when Maud died. It went on for another nine years until Everett was murdered. Naturally, this murder seems to be a touchy subject whenever Laura and I brought it up in public circles. Whenever we heard a public talk on Maud Lewis, the saving of Everett and his subsequent murder were never mentioned - it was always glossed over. That's when I thought it might be time to do a painting, if anything then just to set the record straight for myself.

 

Detail, Stephen Wade

 
So I went to meet with Reverend Stephen Wade, an Evangelical Christian, who encouraged Everett into a spiritual conversion only hours before he was killed. Talking with Stephen, and hearing his story convinced me to get on with the painting. The next question was how to do the painting. So, I needed to blend three circumstances together... Wade is the figure with his back to you, Everett is crouched over, suspended between the preacher's words and his own mortality. That's one. And then there is Everett's corpse next to the stove - that's two. The vanishing point is Maud's day bed. It too became black... as in she's dead but still haunts Everett; that's three. These circumstances became the eventual talking points of the painting. I recall viewing the house at the AGNS... peering in the door over the obstructive plexiglass, wondering how to fit all this in. 


Detail, Maud's Daybed

 

SL: That is interesting and a powerful story of redemption and then a sudden and violent death.  Shakespeare himself could not have written the narrative better.  The painting is interesting in that you have compressed both time and the space.  Did you intend for the viewer to feel the physical compression of the small house? 

 

SR: Not at first, but it did seem to just fall into place. The whole thing is about mortality... Maud's, Everett's, the preacher's, and ours. What an amazing space to compress this narrative into. Usually I go through a prep study period of some drawings that give me a good idea where I'm going with a painting. As you know, I didn't do that here. Having the scene of the crime at my disposal was very helpful though. I went back to the AGNS and spent a lot of time with the house. Looking at it, contemplating it, photographing it inside an out, even listening in on conversations about it. It's known to be a tiny house, but it's also interesting how low the ceiling is and how it reflects and counters the busy imagery we confront on the walls and stove. I started thinking I would only do something of Everett's conversion with just the two figures, but when I got back home and looked at my source material of the house and spliced them together it comprised a kind of panorama, like you would see in a landscape painting. Then I knew I could incorporate the third figure. So the next thing was to model for Stephen Wade, Everett, and the corpse.

 
Detail, corpse

 

 

SL:  You modeled for all three figures.  The preacher is seen faceless and in black which is traditional, Everett is in a pose of remorse with his face in his hands.  The face is certainly that of Everett Lewis.  The murdered figure laying on the left of the painting is certainly either dead or severely wounded.  We know from the story that he died that night.  So, although Everett is showing remorse as he sits with the preacher, how are you depicting his redemption through this scene?

 

 SR: Everett's redemption... hmm, he wouldn't set foot in a church and was illiterate. Reading the bible was out of the question. So his hands are up to his head - blocking out everything but Wade's words and prayers. I'm no theologian, but Stephen Wade believed everyone has a void. In the interview he said to me: "We try to fill them with temporary things. For Everett it was money, greed, even vengeance, but God put the void there and God is the only one that can fill it." If redemption is suggested in the painting... and it may or may not be depending on the viewer, then it pertains most likely to the narrative supplied by Stephen Wade. Generally, his words are such that the post religious man isn't interested in hearing them anymore. Ironically though, whether one is religious or not, he makes a good point about humanity. 

 

Human Cross Section, Uof T Anatomy Museum, graphite, 24" x 18", Steven Rhude

 

 

As for the murder, Lance Woolaver's bio on Maud mentions crime scene photos that he saw. I didn't think I needed to go that far. I think the point in the painting is obvious. I saw and drew enough cadavers in the University of Toronto's dissecting rooms to last me a life time. There was an interesting human head displayed in their anatomy museum cut in half to show a cross section of the brain. When I did a drawing of it, my teacher was puzzled that I instead focused on the man's expression and not the brain. Maybe even in death there is expression... but what does one do with it? I thought about that when looking at paintings of murder scenes by the likes of Cezanne, Artimisia Gentileschi, Rembrandt, and Bougereau. I decided to drop the theatrical quality of death. Expression in this painting has more to do with the figures and the room, there is very little to see of the human face. Gesture is important to me. It can be the spirit of a painting if you know what to look for. When I was gesturing in the figure by the stove I noticed the area rug centers the composition -  a painting within a painting - Everett siting with one foot on it. This is the thing about gesture, you have to do it and then look at it... maybe even for a day or two. I altered the corpse's right leg and foot in the gesture to also meet on the carpet. That little vignette bridges Everett in life passing into death.

 

SL:  Some of your paintings contain elements of the physical and the spiritual. The physical house that you are depicting is on display as a cultural artifact at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.  When the public sees the restored, bucolic, magical tiny house that Maud Lewis called home, how many patrons would ever imagine that a murder had taken place there? If they were aware of this how would it change the larger narrative on the story of Maud and Everett Lewis?

 

SR: The thing is most people are not aware of it, so not much will change. My sense is that most patrons just go with the interpretive panels and promotional material accompanying the house and paintings. After so many years of careful marketing, Everett's death and the dark side of the house may throw an unwanted wrench in the works. I've never heard a rep. from the AGNS comment on it publicly or otherwise. I've never read an article about it by the CBC or other media outlets. Furthermore, I would imagine that the physical house, going back to when Bernie Riordon was director of the AGNS, had been a museological goldmine in the board room and also with Scotia Bank - its sponsor. I think they knew very well they had something special. Everett's murder was the last thing they would have wanted to discuss or promote, let alone Maud's captivity, and her illegitimate child Catherine. Back then the gallery had some new digs and were looking for a patron saint, something to separate them from other provincial galleries. They were in the process of building an institution - Maud fit the bill. It had NSCAD's blessing as well; folk art was seen as a counterpoint to the conservative art in Nova Scotia prevalent until the American expat invasion, and Gerry Ferguson was an avid collector of folk art which eventually made its way into the AGNS's collection. So the stars were aligned as they say. Later on though, years of uncomfortable questions by Lance Woolaver and his eventual biography on Maud have eroded a lot of the sugar coating for those more curious than the average patron, but then the movie "Maudie" comes along and reapplies the coating. I sense the movie has cast a false shadow on the house.... many see it as a fantasy house now, a place occupied by some rural folk and a thirty year love story - nothing could be further from the truth.

 
Detail, Everett

 

We need to ask ourselves what exactly this house was about, and what it represents to us today? How could it be a house of murder, greed, anger, and confinement, and yet contain on its walls, stairs, and stove, a visual diary, a human joyful melody comprised of memories, flowers, butterflies, and birds, by an arthritic, anti-modernist folk painter, who was an anomaly in the rural world of Nova Scotia's resource based economy?

 

 I believe this is what the public should be experiencing when they encounter this small rural house, a place I once considered to be a house spiritually prepared when I first saw it myself, years ago, as a person new to Nova Scotia; it was something other worldly. This may have been one of the reasons Stephen Wade could no longer pass the house on that fateful new years eve long after Maud had passed on. He sensed something was amiss and had to turn back - a voice told him so. In his mind there was a soul to help save. He did the kind thing the only way he knew how. Without Wade's account the narrative is incomplete, as is the patrons experience.

 

SL: When an artist creates a piece with this voice, by that I mean a very sobering subject, it must take some emotional and psychological toll on the creator.  How did you feel while you pieced this painting together and completed the work?


SR: Art, if it is still lodged in the mind of the adult becomes serious stuff. A painter can carry a vague image around for years and really never know why or what might trigger its manifestation - this is something unique to the wellspring of creativity. I doubt any psychologist will ever find the answer to this. However, there is something to the mental endurance side of things here. As with the Poor Farm painting I did that dealt with mental illness and captivity, there was a lot of reading involved. I reread Lance Woolaver's bio on Maud and thought a lot about my interview with Stephen Wade. I did a little writing on the subject. This went on for about four months... just thinking about making this painting. Pondering it at supper time when really the kids should warrant attention. So ya, there is some anxiety that goes along with things like this... until I started the painting over Christmas. Then there is the mental endurance to complete the painting - which is a different thing. Something most artists can relate to. And yet, like Poor Farm, the last mile is the longest.    

 

SL: Summing up here - as I mentioned at the beginning,  when I look at this painting there is the feeling of compression. You know ... space, subject, the figures, but now that I look further, there is also an underlying logic and domestic order in the room. The only release from this is the paintings that Maud did on the walls of the room. A kind of journalistic mural of naturalia and memory. How do you think the intense space that Maud and Everett created related to the lives they lived?

 

SR: The house in art, or in Maud and Everett's case, a single room ... well for me it reflects the life cycle. It's a tactile artifact that elicits the internal geography of two individuals. We know that Everett sold off as much as he could of Maud's work and effects... a grim attempt to extinguish her presence in the house. Sadly at times humans out live love. We are born, live, love, even hate, and die. The strange thing is that objects often out live our lives and also obliquely provide testament to our spirit - whether our love endured or not. If the Maud Lewis  house were a map, we could chart our way around it from a domestic perspective. There was Maud's tearing away from her life in Yarmouth. We know Maud in essence became a captive in Everett's Marshalltown world, used by Everett as a form of daily income... sometimes she was even situated outside as a spectacle to attract prospective buyers through sympathy. The house is a dichotomy... a place of dark and light. Once inside the house two things are apparent. Except for a tiny corner and a window, the stove and the room's square footage belonged to Everett. Maud on the other hand sought to psychologically break down the walls of her rural prison by illustrating a pictorial melody predominately on the back and right walls of the house. Her imagery, so abstract, at times seems to weaken the major contours of the walls and make them disintegrate. Only the ceiling provides objective relief from the sub passages of Maud's visual escape plan. Most symbolic would have been the front door's imagery - an opening to her childhood of freedom and innocence through memory. No wonder Maud plugged into the love of flowers and butterflies, things long associated in art with the immortality of the universe. 

 

Everett's human equation is the opposite of Maud's. His last years in the house without Maud were that of a self imposed path of physical neglect and spiritual decent. I have yet to encounter in Nova Scotia's history a more illustrative example of a tragic human relationship between a man and a woman, and yet, it's continued durability as a Folk Art myth remains intact. There's something to be said about this.