If you are planning a trip to Canada’s East coast province of Nova Scotia and you are an art lover, then you are in for a treat! Take the time to learn about one of Nova’s Scotia foremost folk artists, Maud Lewis. Maud was a gutsy lady who refused to allow a physical handicap to determine her direction in life. Read on to learn more about this Nova Scotia woman who even after her death continues to be an inspiration to many …
Nova Scotia born folk artist Maud Lewis brought vibrant life to all the paintings she created. Maud painted to bring color, happiness and enjoyment to her quiet, rural life. Maud was not a formally trained artist, indeed she knew no one else who painted and had never even set foot in an art gallery before but she had a unique vision and that vision has shaped an international awareness of the “folk art” creations of Nova Scotia, the second smallest province in Canada. A renewed interest in, and appreciation of, her simple yet breathtaking work has brought richness to the art world that it has not seen for quite some time.
Who was Maud Lewis?
Maud Lewis (nee Dowley) was born on March 7, 1903 in the small farming community of South Ohio in Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia. Maud suffered her share of problems from an early age, beginning with the debilitating disease polio, which served to cripple her hands, arms and neck. Maud was also born with little if any chin and was very tiny in stature.
As a youngster Maud spent a great deal of time alone, on account of the fact that other children treated her badly. As time went on her physical handicaps gave rise to rheumatoid arthritis. But Maud had an enduring spirit and an exceptionally courageous, joyful attitude that saw her through the bad times. She enjoyed playing the piano and assisted her mother with constructing and painting Christmas cards to sell to friends and neighbors, as the family was poverty stricken. It was a humble beginning for a budding artist- an artist who did not, throughout most of her life, comprehend her true potential as a painter. Her talent was lost on her; she simply painted to make herself, and others, happy.
Married Life for Maud
In 1938 Maud married a fish peddler named Everett Lewis. She used to accompany him as he went about from place to place selling fish. To make some extra money Maud returned to doing what she loved most- making her own unique Christmas cards and selling them to interested parties. From there she began painting and in painting she discovered a lifelong enjoyment.
The Simple Life
Maud never did any traveling outside of her home province of Nova Scotia. In fact the only time she went anywhere was when the couple moved to Marshalltown (a short distance from Digby) so her husband could obtain employment as a night watchman at the local “poorhouse.”
The couple lived for thirty years in a small one-room house that had no electricity or indoor plumbing and very little furniture. The house was heated by a large wood burning stove and nothing else. The only contact the gifted painter had with the outside world came by way of a small battery powered radio. The couple never owned a television set during their life together. Maud, with her spirited attitude, did her best to make the house cheerful for them both. She painted every available surface with colorful pictures of birds, butterflies and flowers. Maud had a love of living things therefore she surrounded herself with pets and plants. She had many cats, dogs, a tame crow, a trout named Fred and a flourishing vegetable garden that yielded some of the best sweet peas around.
Maud Lewis painted simplistic pictures of pleasant scenes. Her paintings would give pause to even the world’s greatest cynic. They spoke of a quiet existence and tranquility with nature. All of her paintings were of outdoor scenes. Not one shows what her view of “indoors” might have been. She painted pictures of dogs, horses, deer, country homes complete with fences and beautiful big trees, birds, fishing boats, lighthouses and a model T. But her favorite thing to paint was oxen. Maud painted pictures of gigantic oxen pulling sleighs filled with logs, or just standing looking with big eyes and earnest looks, almost as if they are staring back at the observer.
Maud had her own unique way of painting, uninfluenced as she was by the style of other painters. She did not believe in any sort of blending or mixing of colors. She used very simple and inexpensive material for her craft- wallboards and tubes of Tinsol (an oil based paint). When it came time to create, Maud would cover the piece of wallboard with a coat of white, draw an outline of what she intended to paint and then she would proceed to add in the colors to her work. Her only limitation in painting was due to the lack of mobility in her arms, therefore the size of her paintings were neither big nor expansive.
Spreading the Word
In 1959 word spread as people outside of Digby County became aware of the immense talent of a painter named Maud Lewis. Suddenly orders began coming in from other places and the money was extremely welcome for the couple. Besides her wallboard paintings and Christmas cards, Maud extended her work to include the painting of household items such as baking tins, scallop shells and rocks. In 1965 she gained national (and international) acclaim when she was featured on CBC-TV’s Telescope broadcast and in a number of newspaper stories. The publicity from these stints increased her sales tremendously.
The Death of a Talented Artist
Upon her death in July 1970 and her husband Everett’s nine years later, the couple’s tiny, beautifully decorated home fell into terrible disrepair. A group of local citizens eager to preserve the home where Maud Lewis had spent the majority of her life, were concerned about what would become of a place so steeped in Nova Scotia art history. Her house was acquired by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and put on display in Halifax, the province’s capital, as a part of the permanent Maud Lewis exhibit. Everyone is welcome to come see the dearly loved structure for himself or herself.
Erected on the site of the original home in Marshalltown, Digby County is a memorial sculpture paying tribute to the work of the talented Maud Lewis. As befitting it, the metal sculpture is in the shape of the original Lewis house and is practically life size.
Maud was laid to rest next to her husband’s parents and for reasons unknown, Everett had Maud’s maiden name, Dowley, engraved at the base of the stone.
Maud’s Legacy Lives On
Besides the Art Gallery, Maud Lewis’ work can be found in the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Her life was written about in a book entitled, “The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis,” and she has also been the subject of a stage play. The National Film Board of Canada has made two documentaries about her- in 1997, “Maud Lewis- A World Without Shadows” and in 1998, the same name as the book, “The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis.”
Today Maud’s work is worth plenty and her paintings grace both public and private collections throughout the world. To be in possession of a Maud Lewis original is to be blessed indeed.
Marie Ellwood, Folk Art of Nova Scotia (1976); Kobayashi/Bird, A Compendium of Canadian Folk Artists (1985); A.G.N.S., Nova Scotia Folk Art- Canada’s Cultural Heritage (1989); Blake McKendry, An Illustrated Companion to Canadian Folk Art (1999).
Excerpts from the brochure, “Maud Lewis: A Nova Scotia Native Artist,” (1974).