Archive for September, 2019

I have loved Maud Lewis’s work since I was young. Somewhere, somehow, I remember seeing her bright colours and whimsical scenes. Might’ve been on an art calendar at Coles, or in a pile of art books in a bargain bin. I remember hearing, or learning, that she was a Nova Scotia painter, and that she was sometimes referred to as “Canada’s Grandma Moses.” That she charged $5 for her paintings back in 1965 astounds me. If she could see those paintings of hers now, as I did yesterday morning at the McMichael Gallery, she might be shocked beyond all belief. She didn’t want to be greedy, but she actually undersold the beauty of her gift.

Now, in the gallery gift shop, you can buy Maud Lewis mugs, key chains, art cards, and books. Everything, all of her work, is bright and lively, without shadows. The irony is that she had a difficult life, living in poverty and with serious physical challenges, with many shadows. In that way, she reminds me of so many women artists (literary ones, too) throughout history. She sold her work from her tiny house, often times with the paint still wet, for $5 a painting. Imagine that. Imagine her selling those little pieces for $5, and worrying that $10 would be too much to ask. She made herself smaller than she needed to, but so much of that was due to her life experiences.


Still, then she made her life brighter than ever by painting every inch of her home with her husband, Everett. He was someone who interests me. He didn’t like that she had her own mind, that she spoke it, and he was recorded once–in an old 1965 documentary–saying that she really ought to pay heed to his ideas, but she never did, and somehow they worked as a couple. Maybe it was because she was a commodity for him, and there are stories about how he buried the money she made from the paintings in jam jars around the property. He didn’t trust banks, and he likely didn’t trust her. Today, I wonder…would she have stayed with him. I kind of hope she wouldn’t, to be honest, but I also can see how he helped her to paint and how he afforded her that space, even if it was one that was rooted in poverty.

Maud was born in 1901, but she said she was born in 1903. Her childhood was purported to be a ‘happy period,’ but she was mercilessly teased because of the way she looked. Some people said she had been stricken by polio, but she actually had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She disliked what she thought of as a deformed chin, and often hid her hands in photos, tucking them into her elbows. Then, they called it ‘teasing,’ but now we would recognize it as bullying, pure and simple. The videos and photos of her, when she lived in the tiny house with Everett, show a tiny woman who seemed frail and fragile. She never really went beyond her part of Nova Scotia. She didn’t care to. She had Everett. She had her paints and brushes. She travelled through the paintings she made. She escaped into them.

If you’ve seen the film Maudie, with Ethan Hawke as Everett Lewis, and with Sally Hawkins as Maud, it’s rather a romanticized version of their relationship. If you didn’t know the story, you’d think it was a pure love story. She was thirty-seven and he was forty-four. She was an old maid by most people’s standards. Everett was looking for a housekeeper. He found a wife. Some stories say that he was terribly controlling. The film version doesn’t show that, of course, because Hollywood likes “biographical romantic dramas.’ After her parents died, Maud went to live with an aunt, which is how she came to meet Everett.

Who is to say what love looks like, from the inside of a relationship, or from the outside? Everett knew Maud had her own mind, even if he didn’t really like it all of the time. They say he was the person who bought her the paint brushes and encouraged her to paint. Some would say he did this because she began to make money, but he did this before she was famous. Maud and Everett were what people in the area called ‘characters.’ I think Everett met Maud and knew that he had been living in a world that was painted grey. Maud brought him colour and light. She literally painted every surface of that little house. When her health got worse, Everett cared for her. There was, I think, some sort of love there, not in a romantic sweeping orchestral way that Hollywood would prefer, but in the way he accepted her as she was, and in the way she accepted him as he was, and in the way he cared for her near the end of her life.


Despite what people say about Everett, he’s usually in quite a few of her paintings. You can tell him by the outfit and the specific sort of hat that he liked to wear. Maud must’ve held him in high regard, to include him in so many paintings.


I’m likely not qualified to speak about how relationships work because I’ve been on my own for quite some time now…but as a writer, I’m fascinated by other people’s relationships. Often, what they look like on the outside (to the world beyond a house and its walls) isn’t what they are on the inside. All of that ‘surface and underneath’ stuff intrigues me, as an observer and writer, as someone who watches how people work. This fascination works its way into my plays, novels, and short stories more than into the poems, most likely because I’m working with characters rather than stanzas. It’s also a fascination because I think of my parents’ marriage and have questions about how it worked, or didn’t. Maud and Everett intrigue me, mostly I think, because they were thought to be ‘odd’ by most of the people around. How are they ‘odd’ when couples like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, or Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, or Mary and Christopher Pratt were often perceived merely as ‘eccentric’ or ‘artistic.’ Put an artist with an artist, and chaos ensues. None of these pairings were without anger or passion. It may speak to how artists shouldn’t be with artists, even though some would think it smart. Maybe why Maud and Everett worked was because they were different. However it worked, it did.

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What I love about Maud is this: she was a survivor. She faced the loss of her parents and her erstwhile brother, and then went to live with an aunt. She faced physical hardship and often ignored pain in her hands and body when she painted. She painted with a passion that I understand. When something comes through you, creatively, you’re hard pressed to stop it, and you do what you do because there’s nothing else for it. I love that Maud–despite her poor health, as well as living in poverty–painted such beautiful things of the world she saw around her. She didn’t need to go far; she only needed to watch, to observe, to see what she saw, and then paint it. I don’t like the notion that her work is simplistic. For me, I guess, I see it as an art that is pure, without smoke and mirrors. She rose above her life’s challenges and found her freedom and joy in the art she created. That is inspiring. IMG_2479.jpeg

Maud Lewis painted shutters for people in the area where she lived. Of all the things at the McMichael exhibit, I loved these best. Her common motifs are birds, butterflies, flowers, oxen, and cats.

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Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in the film “Maudie.”


What I love most about Maud, though, is her smile and spirit. You wouldn’t know she was living in a tiny house, with a challenging husband who might have tried her patience more often than she would have liked. You wouldn’t guess that she was missing anything in her life. She loved creating art. You can see it in her eyes and smile. That, to me, is one more reason to love Maud…

I’m not an art historian or anything fancy schmancy like that, but if you want to see an exhibit that will touch your heart deeply, then this is the one for you. It’s on at the McMichael until Jan 6, 2020.

If you go, take a deep breath, let the colour inside, and then feel Maud’s work light you up. She was a lighthouse. If you ask me, she still is…




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I always walk early in the morning. I don’t sleep well. There are a multitude of reasons, no doubt. In any case, this morning, I did my usual thing, which is to get up while it’s still dark, after a very spotty sleep with surreal Dali-esque dreams, and then to head down to the lake with Gull. We have our spot. Lately, he tries to steal it. It’s an old concrete lifeguard setting that’s fixed into a rock overlooking the lake. I love to sit there every morning. Usually a few rowers go by, and it’s lovely to hear the sound of someone moving back and forth on the slide, and the sound of oars on the water, but I mostly just want it to be absolutely quiet, before the other people who walk dogs come down to the boardwalk. I mostly just want to be with the sky, the water, the ducks and geese, and with Gull. It’s the place where I begin my day, where I centre myself and then find a still space inside so I can come home and write something.

Today, I opened my messages on Facebook, when Gull and I got home, to find a note from  a friend who had written to say that a mutual friend, Charles Ketter, died yesterday. My heart broke. If you know Charlie, then you’ll know why. He’s been a friend of mine since the day I met him at the hospital. Here’s my story of our friendship. (His would likely be different, I’m sure…but he’d smile and he’d have those twinkly eyes sparkling and likely interject in the telling of the story once in a while.)

Our first meeting was at a media conference, a big thing in some fancy schmancy hospital boardroom. My friend Carol Mulligan was there, too, covering it for the newspaper. I joined the Health Sciences North Patient and Family Advisory Council (PFAC) seven years ago, in September 2012, and was a member of that council for two years. I joined because I had been a rather tenacious and vocal advocate for my parents’ care in our health system through the 2000s. My dad died in December 2011, so I guess I hoped that I could make a difference by joining a small group of committed volunteers who cared passionately about making noise where noise needed to be made. My areas of interest were advocating for mental health and also for the proper care of the frail elderly. I had seen–from my own time as a mental health out-patient at the Kirkwood Site of HSN–that the way through a system, when you’re mentally ill, is markedly confusing, isolating, and alienating. Then, at the same time, caring for my mum first and then my dad, I was nearly defeated by the indifference I met when I had to advocate for both of them. I kept thinking…”What will happen when I get to be that age? I won’t have an advocate. I won’t have children.” I knew that health care at the end of your life shouldn’t be dependent on whether you were single or married, male or female, rich or poor. It should matter that there be equitable services for all frail elderly people. Not everyone gets to hospice, so palliative care needs to be just as thoughtfully designed, and I have always believed that dying is a part of living, so it’s about how you live as you die. Charlie…well…Charlie knew that living was the best way to fight his cancer. He taught us many lessons in bravery and tenacity in the last few years.

While I was on HSN’s PFAC for those two years, I kind of fell in love with Charlie a little bit. If you knew him, you’ll know why. He was (and I find this so very hard, to write of him in past tense this morning) clear minded, vocal, passionate, caring, brilliantly quick witted, and it seemed to me that he would live forever. Today tells me a different story. Charlie fought cancer for the last few years, with a passion and dedication to the knowledge of his own care that I’ve rarely seen in anyone else, not even when I worked as a fundraiser at the Cancer Centre in the late 1990s. Charlie researched his type of cancer, the treatment possibilities, and, even when he was in hospital because of his illness, he had Joe Pilon and David McNeil in to his room regularly to give them a piece of his mind about spotty internet service when all he wanted to do was monitor how the various high school basketball games were progressing around town. He was the guy who, when Daffodil Lodge sort of changed its path, knew that–for people who were isolated–the internet and social media could serve as a connection to a wider world, a community of care. He refereed basketball games for years, and many Sudburians will most likely know him from that part of his life. He was also a beloved teacher, so thousands more will remember him from a classroom. I can only imagine that he was very special in front of a group of kids.

I find it funny that I didn’t meet him before 2012, given that he must’ve keenly attended a number of my uncle Peter’s Lady Vees basketball games back in the day at the old Ben Avery, when it didn’t look as posh as it does now. His love of basketball would have paralleled Pete’s own love, I imagine. In any case, the Charlie Ketter I knew and loved was a good man. He cared for his son, who had special needs. He cared for his family. He cared for others and knew that, through his advocacy work at the PFAC, he would at least make himself heard. I met two very good friends at the PFAC: Charlie Ketter and Nancy Johnson. Some days, when I hear about the way seniors and frail elderly are still treated within HSN and through the nursing home system, I think we didn’t accomplish very much. I worry a lot about that. I wonder if it was lost time and energy. It seems, to me, that people don’t mind much about things until they happen to them personally…until they fall ill or need surgery, or until they have a poor experience with an ailing parent in the hospital and health care system. There is a discrepancy between care for those who are under 60, and care for those who are over 60, and this is discrimination, no matter how you try to dress it up.

Back in 2017, Charlie was one of the people who quietly but persistently lobbied to have space in Daffodil Terrace Lodge renovated for alternate level of care patients, those who tend to be frail elderly and who are waiting for a nursing home placement. He was, at that point, in the battle of his life, but also between places in terms of housing. He had plans to sell his house and move into an apartment because he thought he was dying. The doctors had told him that. Two or three years ago, he thought his time was short. He kept defying all odds and everyone around him was grateful for that. While he was in the Lodge, Nancy and I went to visit him one day. He talked about how he had been evaluating the way in which this new pilot project for ALC patients was working, from the inside out. Senior admin knew this and often stopped by to visit him. He told them clearly what he thought needed fixing. They listened. I don’t know to what extent they changed things, but they knew enough not to ignore Charlie Ketter.

I could write about Charlie all day long. Seeing his face here makes me want to cry. I did cry this morning. He was a good man. His heart was so lovely. He was someone who, when the chips were down, always looked for the positive in people, even if the system itself felt a bit rotten inside. He never took “no” for an answer, not backing down when big wigs might’ve thought they could intimidate him in meetings. He asked pointed and well thought out questions. He demanded answers. He had a quiet but certain voice.

Most of all, though, he was loved. By many.


I loved him a lot. When I was away down south writing last year, he would send me little notes of encouragement and say how great it was that I was working away at my writing. He kept reminding me that life was something to be valued. The way he lived his life is the way we should all try and live our lives: to be true to yourself and not drift from your internal, core principles and ethics; to serve others in your work–whether it be paid or volunteer; to be kind and generous with your time, and with just listening to someone else; to be present and mindful when you are with others; to hug people often; to tell friends that you love them, and mean it; to believe that things can always get better, with a bit of heart and head commitment, and with a bit of hard work.

It takes someone really special to keep at his volunteer work while he was struggling with poor health and its challenges, its ups and downs, over the last few years. It takes someone really devoted to his causes and his community to be so selfless. His heart was…vast and generous. Anyone who knew him knew that, and anyone who was touched by his light was lucky to have met and known him. He made a difference. I hope he knew that.

Charlie…I would’ve liked to have had just one more chat…just one more hug…just one more “keep at it, kid.” Bless.




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