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A Place of Springs

Posted by Theology of Home on
A Place of Springs
“As they pass through the valley of weeping, they make of it a place of springs”
-Psalm 84:6

 By Denise Trull 

A ‘spring’ is defined as a place where water moving underground finds an opening to the surface and emerges, sometimes as just a trickle and sometimes in a continuous flow. There is something deliciously mysterious in the notion of secret openings dotting the world’s circumference -- half hidden portals through which life giving water flows up and out from the depths below, catching its first taste of dappled sunlight. 

Hilaire Belloc, a great, energetic, boisterous thinker of a man, who hailed from late 19th century England, once announced to a whole dinner party of surprised guests that they would be taking a hike after supper. They were going to follow the river near his home all the way to its source just for the joy of it! The whole party enthusiastically followed him there and back again, discovering to their surprise that the rushy river they knew so well had as its vital source a mere trickling of water dripping from an unassuming crack in a rock that would have been difficult to find unless it had been deliberately sought. Belloc had thought it worth the effort, this seeking of hidden springs. So had his guests. They all returned in high spirits and ended the evening singing the Salve Regina with extra gusto within the walls of the Belloc family chapel. Discovery has that effect. Joy. Wonder. I have come to call this the “Bellocian principle”: a life spent in a determined search for hidden springs whether literal or figurative.

I had one of these Bellocian moments recently. I was wandering the art section at the local library, not really searching for anything in particular. I randomly pulled out a large, though thin volume, entitled: The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis”. On the cover was this wizened, tiny, gnome-like lady with disturbingly crooked hands -- hands that were clutching a paintbrush as if for dear life. She could have been a character from the imagination of a Grimm or an Andersen. But it was the smile that caught me and warmed me down to my toes. She sat in a backdrop of flowers and birds and fairies painted willy-nilly on the walls behind her.

When I opened the cover and ruffled through the pages, out flowed all these bright, startling colors splashing over me like a bracing joy. Butterflies, big red barns, a team of jaunty oxen with flowered harnesses and long, whimsical eyelashes. There were snowy hills and sleds gliding home in a gathering dusk. A man hauling logs, and another of him plowing. Fishing boats floating happily under blue skies puffy with clouds. Little birds ready to hop off the page and perch on my finger. A lazy, fat cat snoozing in a chair. And those colors! Reds, yellows, blues, and greens -- vibrant and inviting. I had a sudden desire to be part of this lovely world painted here. Where was I?

It turns out this bright, little world hugged the coast of Nova Scotia in the mid-20th century, a place dotted with little villages featuring “rose laden fences and post and beam houses.” There was no great amount of wealth or prosperity in this land. The Nova Scotians made their meagre living at this time working small farms with problematically thin soil, by fishing for only meagre catches, or by logging...which didn’t bring in enough to make a living. It seemed ordinary and somewhat depressed. So what explains these pictures, then? I was intrigued. I brought the book home seeking the Bellocian source.

Maud Lewis was born on March 7, 1903 to two very loving parents named John and Agnes Dowley. She had a brother six years older named Charles, who was energetic, jolly, and the confessed apple of his father’s eye. Maud was born tiny, with multiple birth defects that left her shoulders sloped, her back curved, and her chin permanently resting on her chest. Her hands were crooked and the fingers bent. But from the moment she laid eyes on her, Maud’s mother fell totally in love.

Agnes nurtured and protected Maud with extra care from the moment she was born. They did everything together. Agnes taught Maud how to cook and sew. They would listen to music floating happily from the old Victrola while they folded laundry together and danced about the room. When they were able to buy a piano, Agnes taught Maud how to play.

John was a harness maker and made a good living supplying the loggers and the fishermen with his leather products. He was a pleasant, interesting man and people liked to stop by his shop and talk. He had an artist’s heart and did not just make any ordinary harnesses. His were a work of art. He worked with his leathering tools to make flowers, trees, and his signature designs. These were well sought out. Agnes, in her turn, was an artist as well. She made quilts, and she painted. To bring in some extra income during the winter months, she created charming water colored Christmas cards to sell at the local General Store -- five cents a piece. She taught Maud all her tricks of the trade. Maud was enamored of the paint box from the very first moment her mother set it before her. She took to painting like a duck to water. Agnes and her husband never once thought Maud was not capable of doing these things. Maud responded in kind and thrived. By all accounts she had the brightest eyes -- a happy child filled with many artistic talents. Her beautiful smile was there from the beginning and never seemed to leave her face for the rest of her life. 

The family spent many quiet, happy days together on the farm near the town of South Ohio. As Maud got older, Charlie offered to bring her to the music festivals, dances, and boating excursions he and his friends enjoyed. Though Maud would go and try to enjoy herself, she felt too small and “crooked” among Charlie’s pretty, energetic friends. But she endured her awkward self-consciousness for the music. Charlie played in a jazz band and she loved hearing him play. But mostly, Maud spent her time at home. She felt safe and happy there, painting and creating beautiful things under the protective love of her mother.  These were the years that would be remembered in minute detail by an older Maud, and these were the vivid memories that would be the subject of her later life’s work, work that would be imbued with happiness and peace.

When Maud was eleven, the family moved to Yarmouth. She attended school there and the teasing began. Children laughed at her deformities and she was so shy she could not defend herself or speak up for herself. She often went off by herself to hide and draw. At home, she poured all her hidden feelings into painting the little cards her mother had taught her to paint long ago. Eventually, her parents brought her home for good and Maud looked forward to growing older with her mother and father whom she could help and who would look out for her welfare. She would have her place, her things, her memories and the love she needed to thrive.

But in 1935, Jack Dowley passed away suddenly and Maud’s mother did not last much longer. She died in 1937 when Maud was 34. That year, probably lonely and distraught, Maud sought comfort and love. The details are vague, but she ended up being taken advantage of by an unknown cad who got her pregnant and disappeared. Maud’s baby was taken as soon as she was born and was given up for adoption without her ever laying eyes on her. Maud now had that sorrow of shame to add to her already heavy burden.

Charlie, who had been so cheerful and inviting while her parents were alive, suddenly realized he had to take care of Maud’s welfare and promptly refused. He and his wife moved in for a time at the family home, and sent Maud packing to live with an aunt in the village of Digby. Charlie had taken all of the inheritance money from their parents, and Maud never knew there even was an inheritance. Using the war as an excuse, he divorced his wife, and sold the family home without telling Maud. He got rid of all his parents' things and never thought to give over any of their personal possessions so treasured by Maud. Anything that had anchored her to life, to happiness, to love, to a cheerful service was gone and sold. Charlie left for war, and when he returned he never saw Maud again. She was a ship at sea, a very small and fragile ship at the mercy of an aunt who only took her on because it was the 'Christian’ thing to do.

One would think that Maud would have receded into the darkness of her room and stayed there the rest of her life, broken hearted, resentful at the treatment she received, slowly becoming more and more crippled by the rheumatoid arthritis that had settled into her twisted little body, and at the mercy of her Aunt’s charity with nothing to show for her life. No one in that little world on Nova Scotia would have blamed her -- after all she was not fit for much else in the wider world. But that was to underestimate Maud. For Maud was a hidden spring and no one even suspected the living water she was about to let loose on the sad, parched world in which she lived. 

Maud had saved her paints when she moved in with her aunt. But her aunt didn’t like the “mess” and scolded her whenever she dared to open the lid. Maud was a determined sort and she painted anyway. She pined for a life of her own. She still longed to be counted among the people who had “made it” in life-- people who had a house of their own and perhaps a husband to take care of and who could earn their way in the world. She wanted that most of all.

One day she saw an ad written in atrociously bad spelling hanging on the wall of the general store in town. A local fishmonger needed a housekeeper. Live-in or no -- didn’t much matter to him. Maud decided to answer the ad. She walked all the way out of town to his little house at the side of the road, and there she met Everett Lewis, her future husband. He wasn’t so sure of her and he wasn’t afraid to tell her so, being a curmudgeon and a rough sort, but he gave her a chance.

Maud tried her hand at the housework but was so crippled by then that she could not do much. Everett, who had endured a share of sorrow about as heavy as Maud’s, somehow let her stay on. Everett had grown up on the poor farm and was passed around from neighbor to neighbor to work for food. Some neighbors were kind others were not. He scrounged and saved the few cents he made and ended up selling fish to the village people. He found an old shack of a house and dragged it by oxen to his little patch of land by the main road. It had no heating, no running water, no lighting -- nor did he ever think it should. He drove an old, beat up truck and he was a terrible miser with money. He haunted junk yards and never bought anything ‘fancy.’ Only the necessary things.

Everett did have one small little trickle of beauty within himself. Behind his crooked, little house grew rows and rows of colorful sweet peas, tended religiously by him, growing up stakes in the patch of grass behind his house. They were always a source of comfort for Maud. Alas, Everett was gruff and easily angered, and very sensitive about being his own man who owned his own house outright. Somehow this sad and damaged man, poor and dirty and whose soul had healed crooked after his childhood sufferings, took to Maud and she to him. They truly liked each other. They were married. Everett had made Maud respectable in his strange way. She had -- small and poor and odd as it was -- her own life.

Then something truly beautiful began to happen. While Everett was away hauling logs or working selling scrap, Maud took out her paint brushes and scrounged among Everett’s paint in the shed. She spontaneously began to paint on the walls with whatever colors she had at hand: birds, flowers, chickens, cats. She painted each step of the stairs leading up to the loft. She painted over the old stove. She painted over the cracks in the walls and put daisies on the window panes. All day she painted and when Everett came home for his stew at night, he was to meet a new design tucked here and there -- on a chair, on a widow sill. Anywhere. He would grunt over his stew, but he always let her paint.

Slowly, a stream of joy began to flow a little stronger from the spring of her happy memories deep within her heart and down through her paintbrush. Though he would never admit it, they gave Everett joy as well and he started commenting on a cat’s ear here, or the shape of a bird there. When she started on the outside of the house, people passing by began to notice. The front door was a gorgeous display of vining flowers and bright colors. Cars began to stop and the drivers would call out enquiring if she sold any of her artworks. Well, not so far, but maybe she would, is all Maud would murmur as she smiled her beautiful smile. She hinted to her husband that maybe she could try.

Everett began to cut scraps of wood for her to paint. She painted barns, boats, buggies making their way across the grass, a beach scene. She drew cats, birds, flowers outside her door. All these wonderful pictures she had stored in her heart from the happy days living with her mother and father. She drew Everett hauling wood and she drew a pair of oxen that she loved as they were herded past her door complete with harnesses in the pattern of her father’s artwork. Everett had never seen himself so happy as he was in those paintings, and he marveled a bit in his growly way. Maud sold the smaller ones for $2.00 and the larger ones for $5.00. She never cared where the money went and no matter how famous she was to become, she never charged more than five dollars. She only wanted to paint. She often said that if she had a paintbrush in her hand, everything would be okay.

Every day she would paint by the only window, with her TV tray and her can of turpentine. She painted from memory, she told all the curious. Many of her scenes were not to be found around her little home from which she never traveled far beyond in her married years. These scenes were memories from her underground water -- her mother and father’s love, the old house, the wharf, the barn of her childhood, a time when she was truly happy and successful with her mother’s help. She painted her present life with the happy, beautiful shades of that time.

She found a way to joy by letting her paintbox be the crevice in the rock of her suffering -- from which the living water flowed. The more she suffered from her arthritis, the unheated house, the overwhelming fumes of turpentine in the stuffy room, Everett’s sometimes mean-spirited ways, she painted. The more Everett refused to let her go to church to hear the singing, or attend a dance there in the hall, or own a radio, she painted love, joy, kindness all over the suffering until it was conquered. Maud was a spring where the water of supernatural joy had found a way out to the world, and it was every color of the rainbow.

People noticed that joy. Sometimes the judge from the town next over would come and see Maud and bring her a basket of fruit and and some sausages. But what he really wanted was to just sit and talk to her and enjoy her presence. Here she was, a crippled, deformed little person sitting in a heatless house in her old dress and apron, enjoying tea with the judge and smiling shyly at his conversation and his easy teasing, while her curmudgeon of a husband growled about using up too much milk.

Her paintings were soon talked about all over the United States. President Nixon wrote her a letter asking her to paint him two beautiful scenes. In her simple way, she had no idea of his importance, and wrote back that if he would send $10.00, she would send the pictures straight away. She painted and painted from morning until night filling orders and trying to make people happy with her painting. Other painters in Nova Scotia began to write her newsy little letters and many visitors asked for the quaint old Christmas Cards her mother had taught her to make long ago. Maud had become famous and was the pride of her homeland without ever leaving her little house.

Sickness and her growing arthritis slowly took over Maud’s life and she died quietly in 1968 in a hospital bed with Everett awkwardly holding her hand. Maud had painted all the way up until the day she died, making little cards for her nurses and finishing off some other pictures with felt tipped markers. The water flowed on until the spring quietly closed her eyes.

Poor Everett seemed lost without her. He had no spring to drink from anymore. He returned home and began to sell off her things to avid collectors to make his precious money. Without Maud to show him how beautiful he was in her world, Everett could not see it himself. But many other people saw her beauty shining in the pictures and began to collect her artwork. Her little painted house was saved and now, through the work of many who loved her, it has been restored and sits safely in a museum in Halifax.  Maud Lewis is a household name among the coastal villages she used to call home.


One can take away so many lessons from this little life of Maud Lewis. That childhood memories are tenacious and strong and constant and if we give our children steady, loving, busy, cheerful childhoods they will tuck them away in their hearts to make a place of springs when they inevitably must walk through a land of suffering. That no one is too small or damaged to make a difference in this world, and that sometimes it is from those small, crippled, seemingly useless people where the living waters flow. That art is a most powerful thing worthy to be promoted and cherished.  

This story of one little life that wasn’t predicted to show much promise was a cascade of water that caught the sunlight and sparkled color all over the world. We all gaze at Maud’s paintings wanting to dwell there, just one minute more. This transformed pain that shines with glory, that makes this old suffering world a sudden place of springs. 

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri. 

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