Aisling Walsh recreates the life of a folk art legend

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Roxy Theatre
now playing

It’s ironic that a film about an intrinsically Canadian story like painter Maud Lewis’ was made by an Irishwoman, a Brit and an American. You sure can’t tell from watching the movie: Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke nail Maud and Everett Lewis, and director Aisling Walsh perfectly captures the rural East Coast milieu that shaped Lewis’ work.

In spite of severe arthritis and a community that shoved her aside, real-life Maudie got the attention of collectors from around the world (one painting landed in Richard Nixon’s White House). She never had formal training, just an irrepressible need to express herself. Maud never left her 10 by 12 foot shack on the outskirts of Digby, Nova Scotia, even though towards the end of her life her work achieved recognition. Today, some of her paintings fetch five figures.

The film is about Maudie’s art as much as it is about her relationship with Everett, the taciturn fisherman who hired her as his live-in maid, then married her. Maud made a life alongside the door-to-door fish peddler. She painted on walls, cooking sheets, bread boxes — any clean surface she could find.

Maudie is ultimately an uplifting story. Aisling Walsh does a bang-up job reconstructing the period, including the one-room house where Maud and Everett lived. I recently talked to Walsh over the phone.

How did you recreate Lewis’ art on screen?

It’s always difficult to do films about painters. People know their work and they want to see it on screen. In the case of Maud, the main challenge was recreating the interior of the house, which is her greatest work of art. She worked on it over a period of 30 years and it informs everything else in her life. The rest of her work — her Christmas cards, her paintings — was also difficult because she was a really competent artist. Her work looks simple, but soon you realize it’s much more sophisticated than you thought.

Sally Hawkins portrays Maud Lewis’ physical quirks but her performance isn’t mannered. How did you shape that?

When I read the script, the first person I thought of was Sally because I knew she could do it. That half-hour CBC film about Maud — we see her house, we listen to her voice, we see her moving and walking — was really helpful for her old age. Then we tried to make our way back. It was a very subtle process and took months of preparations. Once on location, we had to work out how she opened doors, how she held her paintbrush. Sally did most of the work herself. She spent weeks working with an artist with a similar style to Maud’s.

Did you have to go back to St. John’s (subbing for Digby) specifically to shoot the winter sequence?

Originally we were going to start in the summer but things got pushed to the fall, from mid-September to the end of October. We had no snow. We took two days off the main schedule so we could come back with Sally and Ethan in the winter. The house was left there — we had security for all that time. For me, it was important because Maud painted a lot of winter scenes and it was half their lives in Nova Scotia.

You mentioned that CBC documentary. In it, we see Everett cracking a smile, but in Ethan Hawke’s portrait, he never does.

By all accounts that’s how he was. Having spoken to people who knew them, Everett was a tough individual and could be quite cruel. He changed when Maud came to live with him: She brought light and colour into his life and, in a way, civilized him. After she died, Everett sold whatever was left of her work and ended up painting, himself.*

Did you find anything about Maud and Everett that surprised you?

No, but the really interesting part of the story is to learn about Maud’s child and how little we knew about it. There are aspects of Maud’s life that remain unknown since they lived in that little house all their lives. Whatever we were able to find out was useful. ❧

*Everett tried to pass off some of his work as Maud’s, but it was promptly debunked.