An illuminated spirit

Her life was hard, simple and limited, but Nova Scotian artist Maud Lewis found pleasures to chronicle with her paintbrushes — on virtually any surface within reach in her tiny home.

As a youngster, she began painting Christmas cards with her mother, selling them to friends and neighbors. In the years that followed, this diminutive woman would become Nova Scotia’s best known folk artist. Her life was restricted by physical disabilities — the result of several birth defects — and later, severe rheumatoid arthritis. Formal education ended at Grade Three and her world would never extend more than an hour’s drive from her birthplace, South Ohio, Nova Scotia.

Upon the death of her mother, 34-year-old Maud was sent to live with an aunt in Digby. Within a few months she had responded to a newspaper advertisement posted by Everett Lewis, a local fish pedlar, who needed a housekeeper. She married him in 1938 and for the next 32 years until her death in 1970, lived in his primitive, if petite (13 1/2 X 12 1/2 foot), home in nearby Marshalltown. It was to become her greatest work of art. Poverty and a reclusive lifestyle couldn’t stem the flood of her artistic expression. An unschoed painter, Maud nevertheless had a remarkable desire to create. She decorated their tiny home with an exuberant array of birds, butterflies and flowers — on exterior and interior walls, on stove, wash basin, dustpan, windows.

The unusual little house became a landmark, drawing tourists who paid only a few dollars for her simple, strong paintings of local scenes or animals. As her fame grew through newspaper and television coverage, her work became prized by collectors and galleries. Amusingly, in 1970 two paintings were purchased by Richard Nixon’s White House, but at Maud’s insistence, were not sent until she’d received payment.

Fame did little to improve the quality of her life. Husband Everett buried her small earnings in jars or hid them under the floorboards. The house remained without running water, electricity, a kitchen or bathroom.

Her earlier work is surprisingly sophisticated for an untutored artist; later, her colours would became bolder. Portraits of oxen, with their curled eyelashes, were a favorite subject, but many scenes would appear in many versions, especially if they proved popular with purchasers. Her art reflects a charming and resilient spirit unconfined by the physical realities of her life.

The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis, an exhibition of nearly 200 works by the artist is at the John B. Aird Gallery, in the Macdonald Block at Queen’s Park, 900 Bay Street (at Wellesley), Toronto, Ontario until February 28, 1998. The show is organized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and presented by Scotiabank with assistance from the Craig Foundation. It’s the perfect antidote to the February blahs.

The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis will appear in the following cities:

17 April – 5 July 1998
Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature
Winnipeg, Manitoba

1 August – 18 October 1998
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Victoria, British Columbia

7 November 1998 – 17 January 1999
Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Fredericton, New Brunswick

6 February – 18 April 1999
Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

5 May – 30 May 1999
Galerie d’art de l’umiversite de Moncton
Moncton, New Brunswick

12 September – 31 October 1999
Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador
St. John’s, Newfoundland