Maud Lewis saw, and shared, the sublime in everyday life in rural Nova Scotia
maud Lewis immortalized the world around her in colourful paintings despite having severe juvenile arthritis. Her subjects ranged from horses travelling dirt roads to a wide-eyed stray cat. She also turned her one-room home where she lived in with her husband in Digby into artwork, painting on the door, walls, chairs, pots and pans, and most everything else.
Nearly 50 years after her death in 1970, the quiet and small-statured woman has grown in recognition and become more popular than when she was living and producing her work.
Today, Maud Lewis paintings are rare and valuable. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has a large permanent exhibition of her work (and her restored home). She was the 2019 Nova Scotia Heritage Day honouree, lauded for helping shape the province’s identity and culture.
Even Hollywood noticed her with the release of the film Maudie in 2017, starring Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins. It won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Motion Picture.
Lance Woolaver, a Haligonian author who has written several books and plays about the artist’s life, grew up a 15-minute walk from the Lewis home.
His family often bought her artwork, back when it was sold just outside her door. He says she sold one painting for $2–$6, or swapped for a few tins of sardines.
“You could say Maud Lewis repaid [my] family many times over,” he says. His family sold the collection of paintings to buy a retirement home for his parents.
To Woolaver, a great deal of Lewis’s appeal is her perseverance. He recalls children teasing her with the name, “Lobster Lady,” due to her physical malformations. Despite difficulties in life and health, she kept creating new works.
A Lewis painting doesn’t last long on the walls of Halifax’s Zwicker’s Gallery, says owner Ian Muncaster. The paintings arrive from collectors wishing to sell and usually go for more than $20,000.
“She was quite well known,” Muncaster says, reflecting on the beginning of Lewis’s recognition and fame in the 1960s. That decade saw Lewis gaining national attention through an article in Star Weekly and an interview with the CBC.
“And of course a good number of people felt very sorry for her because of her condition,” says Muncaster. But Lewis never received the sums of money people pay for her paintings today. Many didn’t appreciate the value of the work they were buying. “A lot of people didn’t think anything of it and threw them in the furnace,” Muncaster says.
The artist’s fame rose over time, making her work more valuable. “Maud’s popularity is a combination of the charm of the paintings, but also her work was lucky that it got promoted well,” says Muncaster. “In art, promotion is very important.”
Mollie Cronin, the manager of a corporate art collection in Halifax, says long-time AGNS director Bernard Riordan helped spotlight Lewis. “Every director kind of has their thing,” she says, “and his thing was folk art. He was someone who really helped shape that story.”
Riordan’s passion resulted in the Lewis home being physically moved to the AGNS in 1996 and restored. It’s now a visible presence within an exhibit of Lewis’s paintings, and gallery visitors can peer through the doorway into a combined living room and kitchen.
Cronin muses that Lewis’s unique style fuels her broad appeal. “People love her kind of spirit. How much she’s able to articulate and communicate with such simple images,” she says.
Brian MacLeod, the owner of several Lewis paintings in Antigonish, admires her folk-art technique. “People refer to it as childlike, but it’s not childlike. No child could do what she did and bring the kind of emotion to it that she did. It’s very simple,” he says.
MacLeod also believes the work epitomizes Nova Scotia. “It didn’t matter how bad things were. She just put her head down and kept on doing what she did,“ he says. “Somehow she saw beauty in the trees and the things that most of us walk by every day.”
In his 2016 book, The Heart on the Door, Woolaver mined 30 years of research to share the sad reality of Lewis’s background and life. He says she married her husband Everett out of necessity to avoid the poor farm (government-run housing for paupers, often with severe conditions and a lot of social stigma). She would have been headed there because in her younger days she had a child while unmarried.
“She was struggling. She was in deep difficulties,” he says. “Every decision that she made was under the pressure and disapproval of the culture in which she lived. To me, a lady who was disabled in the 1950s in Nova Scotia, to have a child out of wedlock, to be poor. She had all these things against her.”
Cronin sheds light on how this makes Lewis’s work stand out. “I think everybody likes the idea that people can create beauty in the most unlikely of circumstances. Like living with a disability, living in poverty,” she says. “That someone was able to create such clear and beautiful images, it’s inspiring for all ages.”
MacLeod began assembling his collection of Lewis paintings when he got into business 30 years ago. The highest amount he’s paid for one painting is $18,000. He says the price was reasonable for a Lewis work.
That began with a phone call from Jeff Parker, the owner of an art gallery in Antigonish. “[He’s] a very knowledgeable guy,” MacLeod says, “and he called me up one day, and of course I was familiar with the story of Maud Lewis. I’d seen the play, and all that long before there was a movie.”
Six months later, Parker called again and MacLeod couldn’t resist: “He said, ‘I have two others.’ Again, reasonably priced. So I purchased them.”
He says only with the blessing of his family would he consider parting with any of his Lewis works. If ever he did, he says it would only be by someday donating them to a university art gallery. “I’m very pleased to have them, and I do enjoy them,” he says of the paintings kept safely in his office and attached to the walls by a locking system.
Woolaver, who has extensively researched the artist’s life, says he thinks Lewis would like people to remember that she had brighter days, too. “At one time she was a pretty, happy little girl in her parents’ house in Yarmouth,” he says. “She was bright, she played the piano, she did well in school, and she was very smart.”
“I think she remembered that happiness,” he adds, referencing the bright colours.
Bob Brooks, a photographer who worked with Woolaver on his books, developed a friendship with Lewis. Woolaver says Brooks told him a story about how she was pleased but humble when she garnered national attention with the Star Weekly article.
“Bob mailed a copy, and she sent him a lovely little thank-you letter,” he says. “Maud cut out the pictures and pasted them with glue on the wall. ‘Thank you for the snaps,’ she wrote back” he says.
Woolaver compares Lewis to Vincent Van Gogh, who was similarly underappreciated during his lifetime. “I think it’s wonderful that we’re starting to understand that Maud Lewis was an artist. The great challenge is to ask: What did she stand for? I think she stood for kindness. In all of her pictures something kind is happening.”