Maud Lewis 1903-1970 - Seeing Life through a Window
“As long as I’ve got a brush in front of me, I’m alight.” (Maud Lewis)
Painters are special people. They often do what they do out of a basic drive to create something that often begins in the imagination. Whatever it is that needs creating forces a desire to bring thoughts alive. There was such a painter born in the quiet of a small seaside village in Nova Scotia in the early nineteen hundreds. What a remarkable creator she came to be. In the story of Maud Lewis’ life, we read how she left her mark in many ways. She painted many images that cried softly to be noticed such as flowers, birds, plants, lobster boats and horse-drawn sleighs. “Not formally trained, Maud adopted a style that emerged from inside the heart of a true artist. As such, she could produce images of enduring quality and appeal, images that transformed her maritime surroundings into painted visions.” (Cowley Abbott, n.d.). She used many surfaces to carry her art. She lacked money to buy more than a few paint brushes. She often painted using ordinary house paint on scrap wood and cardboard but saved some of her finest creations to adorn the walls, doors and windows, even her wood burning stove, in her modest one room house. She shared that tiny house with her husband, Everett Lewis, beginning in 1938 when the house became an early canvas for her. There was much activity in her life that attracted the attention of film makers, playwrights, authors and even the Canada post office which released three commemorative postage stamps for Christmas 2020 honoring her accomplishments. “Many of the famous of our time-the actor Peter Falk, Premier Robert L. Stanfield, the actor Judy Dench-would come to admire Maud’s pictures. Her pictures cheered them up.” (Woolaver, 2016). Even the Nixon White House purchased her work.
Of course there was more to her story than her paintings as we learn more about her life. Maud’s life story was superbly acted out in a popular feature biopic movie, Maudie, released in 2016. More was revealed in a stage play about her life, Maud Lewis: World Without Shadows, Lance Woolaver, 1996, and through a biography, Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door by Lance Woolaver, 2016. “These public celebrations of her life demand that we examine her secret passions... “ “I imagine and paint from memory. I don’t copy much...just have to guess my work up. “(Lewis, n.d.). Maud was born with several physical challenges. Her body was deformed by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. “Although short in stature with hands gnarled by arthritis, as the years passed...Maud gathered images from her happy childhood and painted cheerful images on dust pans, scallop shells….” (Cowley Abbott, n.d.).
The province of Nova Scotia has been kind to its artistic daughter. Much of Maud’s life and work lives on in a special exhibition: the Maud Lewis Gallery located at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. Many of her paintings are on display while the centerpiece of the collection is the actual one room house where she lived, lovingly restored in 1998. The house is still filled with her artistic treasures─the paintings done on the walls, windows, etc. “Based on photographs taken in 1965 by photo-journalist Bob Brooks...the team was able to determine what the interior looked like and the objects it held.” (McLaughlin, 2020). In addition to visiting the house, one ought not to miss seeing a special painting done by Maud in the 1960s. ”Could there possibly be a more Nova Scotian painting than Maud Lewis’s Bluenose? The obvious answer is ‘No’. It would have to be a painting of a bagpipe-playing lobster by Anne Murray to top Nova Scotia icon Maud Lewis’s painting of the iconic Bluenose schooner.” (Forrest, 2020)
There are many publications that describe Maud’s life's work. Here’s one listing of titles available from Nimbus Publishing, Halifax.
Conclusion: Musings on art and life.
What motivation was it 65,000 years ago that led a Neanderthal person to pick up a piece of ochre and etch the shape of a bison on the wall of a cave in Spain? Picasso offers one answer to that question, “Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.” (Picasso, n.d.) Maud Lewis shares some of her life through her art. She was a quiet person who did not explain so well why she created the things she did. Words were not going to help her communicate about her life but maybe her drawings say it all. The lives of many painters are full of joy and adversities...the agony and the ecstasy of creation...think Michelangelo.
Around 1891 Oscar Wilde wrote an essay titled The Decay of Lying which included a discussion of Art: “Art will become sterile and beauty will pass away from the land.” Beyond that Wilde added a discussion about Life in Art. “Life imitates Art far more than vice versa.” So, how is this related to what Maud Lewis did with art in her life? Lance Woolaver, who has done much research into Maud’s life and her art, comments: “It was almost as if the myth was more important than the real details of her life.” (Woolaver, 2017). Peter Howell adds this in the Star Weekly: “Maud’s art is far from naive. It just has a childlike innocence which is actually highly sophisticated.” (Howell, 2017). Finally,here’s a personal statement from one other artist living in Nova Scotia today commenting on Maud’s influence, “I have always been inspired by Maud Lewis. Like her, I also am an artist with Rheumatoid Arthritis. My hands are becoming quite deformed and there are days when painting is painful. I think of Maud and it gives me hope that someone out there might be able to see the beauty that I also see in the simple things in life." (Amon, 2020)
Maud's Home Decor
Commemorative Christmas 2020
For larger view, click on image.
Winter Sleigh Ride, circa early 1960s
Team of Oxen in Winter, 1967
Family and Sled, circa 1960s
Background: Three Black Cats (detail), 1955
(Collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)