Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"It is always a BIG mistake - to underestimate the sickly and the weak."

Maude Lewis was born in 1903 into a rural household in South Ohio, deep in back country Yarmouth County Nova Scotia.

Her family might be considered poor - but no poorer than tens of thousands of other rural Nova Scotia families around that time.

Her difference was that she had a great number of  disabilities from birth.

She was always much smaller than other children. She seemed to have no chin and her head sunk deep onto her chest.

Her juvenile rheumatoid arthritis left one arm immobile by her side and both hands were crippled  into twisted claws.

Naturally the kids at her school teased her mercilessly - particularly as she  reached puberty and she failed to grow adult-like and shapely but remained a small child-like sparse figure.

Because of this, she dropped out of school to live with her two loving parents but she retained her sweet nature and her warm smile.

She could play a piano and entertain well enough - despite her limited hand mobility - to be welcome at the keyboard any time.

And she could draw and paint - taught by her mother - her greeting cards and Christmas cards sold well with neighbours.

Then her beloved father and then beloved mother died, when she was in her early thirties.

Her older brother got the house and made her unwelcome in it till she moved to an aunt, 150 kilometers away in Marshalltown, Digby.

(My family does NOT come from there --- but Thomas Edison's people did !)

She hoped to marry to have someone to support her - but her first attempt ended in a child that she had to give up when the suitor refused to marry her.

Her next suitor actually first hired her to be his housekeeper.

Everett Lewis was very stingy by all accounts, but in his favour, he first hired her and then married her--- even when it became clear he would have to do all the housework for her !

He was even poorer than her family - his home was no bigger than mine and Rebecca's little Hobbit Houses -ie about four metres square.

It had no electricity or  water - basically a one room 'closet' with a ceiling far too low for the average adult - because the attic space was used as the sleep loft.

Still Maud made it cheerful by painting every surface with her colorful memories of her happier life as a child down in South Ohio.

The paint was picked out of the tossed-out tins of fisherman's boat paint that Everett scrounged for her.

He made his meager living selling door to door fish that he got at the seaside to the few people too far inland, too old and too poor to get fish more directly and more cheaply themselves.

Soon Maud moved from helping him sell fish to selling her cards and then paintings - painted with house oil paints on scrap paper or wallpaper - anything and everything.

These paintings with their skillful blend of simple-looking but evocative scenes and the bright colors soon got a steady stream of American customers between the 1930s to the 1960s, motoring up to Cape Breton from New York via Digby.

(Probably some of Dawson's colleagues got all they knew of Dawson's home from these paintings (usually winter scenes) brought back from a one time summer trip to the province.)

But the paintings still sold for only two or three dollars even into the 1960s---- Maud was popular but dead poor all her days after her parents died.

It didn't seem to matter - she painted/recollected her happier childhood memories for the sheer joy of it - and the chance to bring in customers to break her solitude at the one window with enough light to permit her to paint.

Her arthritis got worse and worse.

So did her lungs - from stove smoke and oil paint fumes --- but her images never lost the color and the joy.

She is now one of Canada's most widely loved and admired artists - with a fanbase among non-art lovers AND famous visual artists of the sort that successful graduates of art colleges can only dream about.

I never knew her - except through the evocative photos of Bob Brooks, whom I did  get to know.

I believe the reason why his (very few) photos of Maud herself have been reproduced so often, is not simply due to Maud.

Bob Brooks knew the sort of shoes Maud walked in her whole life.

Bob wasn't particularly big, was hunch- shouldered rather like Maud though much less so.

 (Perhaps from carrying 30 ponds of heavy cameras and lenses over a lifetime? - I don't know - I never asked.)

His face and head had a faintly simian cast.

People referred to his 'monkey-like' look, though not to his face and nor - as far as I could tell - as an insult, but rather as a simple fact.

Bob Brooks was widely admired as the best photographer that the Province of Nova Scotia had in its employ at the time - and just as admired for his mordant tongue about his employers' habits.

I liked him a lot - him and his wife and daughter.

I often wondered how he had managed with his appearance as a child and as a courting young man - before his talent as a photographer made people cut him a lot of slack.

I didn't know then that he had taken the loving pictures of Maud Lewis that made her instantly famous in 1965, 50 years after she sold her first artwork.

 Seeing them again today makes me more sure than ever that Bob's love and admiration of his subject - someone much worse off than himself who had yet risen above her troubles with an always ready smile -  helped 'make' Maud.

Another photographer wouldn't have poured his love into what was supposed to be a routine photo journalism assignment to the extent that Bob Brooks did.

And I am sure glad he did.....

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