Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Evertt's Painting and Murder

The roadside sign from The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis by Lance Woolaver

Though Evertt Lewis' gaunt face and rail thin body seemed frail, his bright eyes had the sly look of a hustler about to make his mark. He shifted through a messy pile of assorted household objects and pulled out a thin art board, wrapped roughly in old newspapers and presented it to my father.

Evertt explained that all of his wife's paintings had sold in the time since her death, but he had this artwork of his own that he could sell to us. My father unwrapped the newspaper, revealing a winter scene of two yoked oxen painted in near perfect mimicry of Maud's, by then, well known style.

Whereas Maud's painting almost always included the figure of her husband Evertt, Evertt's painting included the figure of Maud dressed in her red coat. In the foreground, there where two identical brown rabbits munching on two matching shrubs. Evertt had not been able to figure out how to properly mirror the rabbits on either side of the artwork, so he simply painted the same bunny twice. At the bottom of the artboard was his signature, written in an uneven, childlike hand.

Twenty dollars. That is what he was asking for the painting of the two oxen.

If my father was disappointed with the painting, he did not show it. He handed Evertt a twenty dollar bill and chatted respectfully with the old man.

Maud in her red coat. She uses the coat's large floppy sleeves to hide her hands, which were crippled and deformed by rheumatoid arthritis. Photograph by Bob Brooks from the The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis.

Maud and Evertt Lewis's home has been restored and stands on 
permanent display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Standing behind my father, I looked up from the painting into the gloom of the tiny, one room house. Actually, it was more of a cottage than a house, measuring not much more than 10 feet by 12 feet. The brightly colored spring flowers, birds and butterflies, which were painted on the interior walls and  window panes seemed like odd company for the messy stacks of papers and other household things that covered every flat surface and filled every corner. There was a ragtag assortment of wooden chairs, a table and a daybed. The only heat for the house came from a large wood stove painted with bright orange and red flowers. There appeared to be no bathroom, no running water, no electricity or phone. The low hung ceiling, not much above my father's head, pressed down on the whole scene and made me feel anxious. I couldn't wait for the conversation to end so we could leave.
(Take a tour of the house here.)

Not long after our visit that summer afternoon, Evertt was murdered.

Rumors had spread through the local community that Evertt, well known for his miserly ways, had money stored in a jar and buried in the garden or stashed under the floorboards of the house. A young man broke into the house hoping to make off with cash box and Evertt died in a struggle to protect his money.

Even more remarkable than this sad and dramatic ending to the story, is that out of physical hardship and extreme poverty was born the most joyous artwork imaginable. The story began when Maud met Evertt Lewis.

Evertt gathers firewood for the stove, while Maud watches from the doorway. 
Photograph by Bob Brooks from the Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis.

According to one of the many tales of their courtship that Evertt told over the years, Maud Dowley walked from her aunt's home in Digby, Nova Scotia and knocked on the his door. Evertt, a forty-four year old bachelor, had posted an ad in local stores for a housekeeper. Maud apparently refused to be his housekeeper and insisted that they would have to marry if she was to come to keep his house. As Evertt tells the story, he was undecided about her proposal. His dog, on the other hand,  was "... a pretty sharp dog, who wouldn't let anyone into the house. But when Maud came, he never said a word."

More likely, Evertt actually met Maud when he came to her aunt's home peddling fish. Maud was flattered by his attentions and impressed with his black model-T Ford (the black car figures in many of Maud's paintings).

Photograph by Bob Brooks from The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis

Maud had been born with multiple birth defects that left her shoulders unnaturally sloped and her chin resting on her chest. As a child, Maud was often mocked by other children for her deformities. Her school attendence was irregular at best and by the age of 14, she left school having completed only grade 5.

In the mid 1930's Maud's life took an unhappy turn, when her father passed away, followed by her mother two years later. Then Maud became pregnant.

As with many an unwed mother in the 1960's, Maud was sent in shame to a rural home to give birth to her baby in secrecy. After the baby was hastily put up for adoption, Maud's only brother Charles banished her to live with an aunt in the small town of Digby. Charles never saw or spoke to his sister again.

Maud did not let nature limit her representations of the world around her. In this painting, there are trees with brightly colored fall leaves in a winter landscape. From the Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis by Lance Woolaver.

Maud and Evertt married in 1938. Maud was pleased and proud to be a married woman, despite the fact that Evertt lived in relative poverty. While her own childhood had been a comfortable one filled with loving parents, pet cats, music and art, Evertt, as ward of the local county, had been boarded out to local farms, where he received food and lodging in exchange for his labor. This experience taught Evertt to be a resourceful scrounger.  He caught fish in nearby tidal pools, bartered the fish for produce, he dug for clams, he trapped rabbits and he grew his own vegetables in a small garden plot.

If Evertt was hoping his new wife would do the cooking and the cleaning, he must have been disappointed. By her mid-thirties, Maud's hands had become so deformed by arthritis, she could barely grasp a paint brush in her fingers.

Photograph by Bob Brooks from The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis

As a child, Maud's mother Agnes had taught her how to paint Christmas cards, which they then sold door to door for five cents a piece. Maud found cards time consuming however and they required finer work than her hands would allow, so she switched to painting.

Maud began each painting with a pencil sketch and then filled in the shapes with quick strokes, one hand supporting the other that held the paint brush.  She painted the same scenes again and again like favorite songs: a yoked pair of oxen, horse drawn carriages, cats, birds and flowers. What is so lovable about her crude style is the bright colors and the underlying humor.

Painting from the Collection of Bob and Marion Brooks from The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis

When she was in her mid-sixties, Maud's health fell further into decline. She died in 1968 and was laid to rest in a child's coffin. Her paintings, by then, had achieved notoriety through a series of articles in newspapers and magazines, as well as a feature on CBC television program Telescope.

 Painting from The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis by Lance Woolaver

Evertt lived on another 11 years after Maud's death. During that time he became increasingly eccentric and suspicious of the world around him. Apart from his old age pension, Maud's paintings had been his only his only source of income. When the last of her paintings had been sold, Evertt began to paint his own artwork.  My own painting of the two oxen was one such creative endeavor.

Years after the afternoon my father and I paid our visit to Maud's and Evertt's house in Marshaltown Nova Scotia, I had stumbled across a trendy store in a well-to-do area of downtown Toronto. I stopped dead in my tracks, when I spotted on the wall behind the sales counter, two paintings by Evertt Lewis. One was priced at $7000 and the other was $9000.

I thought back to the our visit to the little house and to the painting that my father had purchased for $20. Wouldn't Evertt, that sly old fox, driven a harder bargain if only he had known what the painting would one day be worth!

The painting that we purchased hangs in my dining room below a small print of one of Maud's winter scenes. I felt that their artwork should be together after all.

References and Other Related Reading:

The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis
by Lance Woolaver
Photography by Bob Brooks
Nimbus Publishing
This is a beautifully written book and my principal reference for this post. Here are the publisher's notes: Maud Lewis (1903-1970) was recognized and revered in her own lifetime, She offered her endearing images to the passing world through her roadside sign, "Paintings for Sale" and was rewarded by the enthusiastic response she received from both the community and tourists as well as from art collectors. 

The Painted House of Maud Lewis
Conserving a Folk Art Treasure
By Laurie Hamilton
Goose Lane Editions 2001:
For many years, Maud Lewis was one of Nova Scotia''s best-loved folk painters. Between 1938, when she married Everett Lewis, until her death in 1970, Maud Lewis lived in a tiny one-room house near Digby, Nova Scotia. Over the years, she painted the doors inside and out, the windowpanes, the walls and cupboards, the wallpaper, the little staircase to the sleeping loft, the woodstove, the breadbox, the dustpan, almost everything her hand touched.

Butterbox Babies 
by Beth Cahill 
Fernwood Publishing 2006: 
Many of the babies born at the Ideal Maternity Home in East Chester, Nova Scotia, were not adopted. Instead they mysteriously disappeared, becoming known as butterbox babies-;named after the grocery delivery boxes that they were buried in. 


  1. What an intriguing story. Amazing art , how lucky you are to have those pieces. Your Dad certainly got a bargain..

  2. I am so excited to read this wonderful post. In 2003, while staying in Digby, we stumbled on Everett & Maud's homestead accidentally. It was impossible to find, down a dirt road, and it was pouring rain. We knew nothing of Maud Lewis. What a find! I now have a print of her three black cats at the top of my stairs, and two other prints in the bedrooms... I love her work and her story, and how we found out about her. Your story of Everett's paintings and the incredible value they fetch is amazing. I love that you have united Maud and Everett (at least their art) once again.

    After our trip I told people about Maud Lewis and the little cabin and her art and her wonderful story and no one was much interested or much liked the prints I got. I am so glad to read this post to prove otherwise!

  3. Jennifer, thank you for telling this wonderful story. I love Maud's paintings and their bright cheery style, though prior to this post, I didn't know much about her personally.

  4. Maud's story is one that should warm anyone's heart. I am especially fond of when she slips her devilish nuances into a picture. Fall leaves in winter...my painting of "Two Deer" have an extra set of hoofprints in the snow! I have beeen smitten with her work for years and am now the proud owner of 7 original paintings and an xmas card. Expensive hobby but fulfilling beyond description!

  5. So sweet. I love folkart and this is really special.

  6. I enjoyed reading this so much. Thanks for posting Maud and Everett's story.

  7. What a wonderful story. I had never head of them but will certainly look up their artwork. It is very whimsical and draws you in to notice every little thing that is going on.


  8. I hadn't heard Maud Lewis' story before. So interesting! I love how she painted everything in her house.

  9. I had never heard of Maud or Evertt before. How wonderful.

    Thankyou for taking the time to post this.


  10. This is an interesting read. I wonder how much those pictures are worth now.

  11. I came across your post today at work but knew I had to wait until I was home in the evening to fully digest your tale! I am so happy that I've given this my full attention ... what a wonderful story! I absolutely LOVE your painting and the print and they do belong together. I am so intrigued by your story and these eccentric artists ~ fascinating! I must read more! Thanks for the history.

  12. Thanks for sharing this beautiful story. It makes me think about how we never know what our legacy might turn out to be!

  13. Beautiful story. Is great to see the paintings have such history

  14. What a wonderful, well written post!! I love art, especially art as accessible as Maud and Evertt's. What difficult lives they led. I live in an area where people whine if the line at Starbucks is too long. Thanks for the fascinating story and refreshing perspective. :o)

  15. This post was so enjoyable and a great read. Have been in the little house at the N.S. Art Gallery and know of Maude's life, but the way you wrote about it, made it "more real".

    Thanks for visiting and commenting on my blog. I love your photos and note you too have a picket fence in your garden. I also note...that I need to put more rose bushes around mine!! Thank you, have put Marjorie Fair Rose on my list. She is lovely but I will admit, roses do not do well for me. Encouragement like your blog photos, inspire me to try again.

  16. hi, I am from the area. and the house was not down a dirt road...there was a replica on a dirt road...their home is no longer there....and it was on highway 101 in Marshalltown...right on the highway

  17. I assume that Anonymous is referring back to Laurrie's comment about visiting the house, as I made no reference to it being down a dirt road in my post. ( Laurrie remembers driving down a dirt road to visit Maud's house. See her comment above).
    My own visit to Evertt and Maud's house in Marshalltown was some thirty years or so ago. The tiny painted house is now on permanent display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. I often revisit the house in the art gallery, whenever I visit home (Dartmouth,Nova Scotia). I have never been back to Marshalltown, but understand that a replica house may have been erected somewhere in the area (near the original location, which as Anonymous indicates, was steps away from the highway).
    The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has made it easy for people worldwide to visit Maud and Evertt's house. Just go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1Q4NrdthUU

  18. I can never see this woman's art and read of her life's hardships without some sorrow that she did not live long enough to see her paintings realize larger sums so that she could finish her days in comfort.
    You say "Maud did not let nature limit her representations of the world around her. In this painting, there are trees with brightly colored fall leaves in a winter landscape" Actually, I don't know the circumstances of that painting but it is not necessarily off the mark. I have certainly seen snowstorms hit when the autumn leaves were not off the trees, with snow deep enough for the use of a sleigh. It isn't common, but it isn't exactly rare. It is quite possible that she painted this scene precisely to capture such an event.

  19. Thank you for your comment Anonymous. Toward the end of her life, Maud's art did enjoy some celebrity, due in no small part to Bob Brook's wonderful photographs, an article in Chatelaine magazine and a television show on the CBC. Commissions came in from far and wide, including one from then president Richard Nixon. Maud paintings also attracted regular local patrons, who not only bought her artwork, but brought her cigarettes and food items as well.
    Sadly, Everett whose early life was one of extreme poverty, had grown to into a miser, who hoarded everything. Though Maud commissions meant that she and Everett had more spending money in these later years, Everett socked most of it away. Rumours of hidden jars of money eventually lead to Everett's death.
    With regarding Maud's winter landscapes with fall trees, you may well be right, Anonymous. Maud may well have painted an actual snowfall in late fall. Freak storms do happen and perhaps she recorded one. I still think it is more likely however, that she thought that trees with brightly colored leaves were more beautiful than bare, unadorned branches.


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