'Maudie' Paints Intimate Portrait Of Canadian Painter Maud Lewis

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The movie "Maudie" is the true story of a painter whose work is so exuberant you'd never guess what a difficult life she lived. In a moment, NPR's Susan Stamberg will tell us about the art and legacy of the real Maud Lewis. But first, our critic Bob Mondello reviews the film.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: She is tiny, her frame bent, fingers crippled by arthritis, though she's barely in her 30s. Still, it's her brother who looks nervous when he tells Maud she's going to have to stay with their Aunt Ida.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAUDIE")

ZACHARY BENNETT: (As Charles Dowley) I sold the house.

SALLY HAWKINS: (As Maud Lewis) Our house?

BENNETT: (As Charles Dowley) Maud, mom left it to me.

HAWKINS: (As Maud Lewis) I'll look after it.

BENNETT: (As Charles Dowley) You can't look after yourself.

HAWKINS: (As Maud Lewis) I'll get a job or something.

BENNETT: (As Charles Dowley) A job - a job doing what?

HAWKINS: (As Maud Lewis) I don't know.

MONDELLO: It's easy to see why her fellow Nova Scotians might underestimate Maud. She walks with a limp, talks tentatively. But she's far from helpless. When the town eccentric comes into the general store looking for a live-in maid, she spies an opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAUDIE")

LAWRENCE BARRY: (As Mr. Davis) What can I do for you, Everett?

ETHAN HAWKE: (As Everett Lewis) I'm looking for a woman.

BARRY: (As Mr. Davis) A what?

HAWKE: (As Everett Lewis) A house maid.

BARRY: (As Mr. Davis) Not the kind of thing we sell.

HAWKE: (As Everett Lewis) Am I an idiot? Well, I need you to write - can you write...

BARRY: (As Mr. Davis) A sign.

HAWKE: (As Everett Lewis) Yeah.

BARRY: (As Mr. Davis) OK.

HAWKE: (As Everett Lewis) Looking for a house maid. Must have her own - what's the word I'm looking for?

BARRY: (As Mr. Davis) Sense of humor?

HAWKE: (As Everett Lewis) No, cleaning tools. Must have her own cleaning tools.

MONDELLO: The sign is barely up before Maud, played pluckily by Sally Hawkins, has grabbed it and started walking miles to Everett's place. He is a fish peddler, seriously anti-social, living in a wooden shack. Played by an almost unrecognizable Ethan Hawke, Everett is startled when Maud negotiates a tiny pittance of a salary and starts cleaning, cooking and, though he bridles at this, adding color to things around the house using leftover house paint.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAUDIE")

HAWKE: (As Everett Lewis) Who told you you could paint fairies on the wall?

HAWKINS: (As Maud Lewis) They're not fairies. They're birds.

HAWKE: (As Everett Lewis) Well, who told you you could do that?

HAWKINS: (As Maud Lewis) Well, you did.

HAWKE: (As Everett Lewis) What?

HAWKINS: (As Maud Lewis) You said, make the place look all right. I think it looks all right.

MONDELLO: They're quite the pair - Maudie crabbed, Everett crabby. Still, there's something about them together that kind of works, partly because Hawkins and Hawke are remarkable, partly because the filmmakers let them make much of small things - the looks on their faces, say, when she starts popping bright, cheerfully painted cards in with his bills and a New York visitor offers to pay more for her card than for his fish. The world doesn't give this woman much, but then, not much is required to make her happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAUDIE")

HAWKINS: (As Maud Lewis) I love a window. The whole of life already framed.

MONDELLO: Maudie's life was so constricted, but her gaze so expansive, as is her movie. I'm Bob Mondello.

Now here's Susan Stamberg with a look at the real Maud's art.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: There's no rain in her clouds, no gray in her shadows. Maud Lewis' small paintings are bright with sunshine and filled with blue skies, crystal snow, calm waters. They're pictures of joy. It's folk art. No formal training.

SHANNON PARKER: Often with a very cheeky sense of humor.

STAMBERG: Shannon Parker is curator at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax. There are 55 Mauds in their permanent collection.

Why do you have that many? Do you have them because she's local or because she's good?

PARKER: I'd say both. She's a local artist who, if we didn't collect them, especially in the beginning, nobody else would have.

STAMBERG: The gallery also has Maud and Everett's house. After they died, the province of Nova Scotia bought the pint-size house and gave it to the gallery. Money was raised to restore it, and in 1998 the house was moved right in. In her final years, Maud told the CBC she rarely left home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAUD LEWIS: Ain't much for travel, anyway.

STAMBERG: Contented right here in my chair, she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEWIS: (Laughter, unintelligible) I've got a brush in front of me, I'm all right.

STAMBERG: Inside, surrounded by walls, bread boxes, cookie sheets, a stove she'd covered with cheery painted butterflies and tulips and swans - canvas was too expensive and hard to get - Maud also brushed her house paint onto beaver boards and Masonite, all original from her imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEWIS: I've never seen any paintings from other artists, you know.

STAMBERG: Hadn't seen other artist's work. She saw what she saw, lots of animals - cows, horses, cats.

PARKER: Oxen with their brilliantly lashed eyes.

STAMBERG: With her gnarled hands, Maud Lewis started out painting 25 cent Christmas cards with her mother. Then came landscapes on the boards.

PARKER: And that she charged originally $2 and eventually up to about $5. She was very hesitant to ask for more money.

STAMBERG: Now they sell for anything from $8,500 to $20,000. She became known in the late 1960s. Passing tourists saw her sign, paintings for sale. There was a magazine article, then the CBC interview. Eventually she couldn't keep up with the demand. She sold her pictures wet. Curator Shannon Parker thinks Maud's popularity, her story, is a work of slow magic.

PARKER: They didn't have a lot of money. They had no running water. They had no electricity. There was a very limited - what she was able to do with her life. And yet her artwork was what she wanted to do. And it's something she was able to do and touched so many other people. That's pretty amazing.

STAMBERG: Pretty amazing. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LISA HANNIGAN SONG, "LITTLE BIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.