From a distance, the paintings of rural life in Nova Scotia by folk artist Maud Lewis are simple and unsophisticated. Her life followed a similar trajectory, with more than a hint of tragedy. She left school at age 14 after years of being mocked for her small frame and obvious deformities. She lived most of her adult life in poverty in a tiny house beside a rural highway outside Yarmouth, on the province’s southern shore. In her later years she received some recognition, but in her lifetime she never received more than $10 for a painting.
Lewis’s difficulties began, in fact, before she was born in 1903. “She suffered from a series of birth defects that left her fingers painfully deformed, her shoulders hunched, and her chin pressed into her chest,” related a 1997 article in Maclean’s magazine. “She spent most of her adult life as a virtual recluse in a cramped one-room house that had no running water or electricity.”
While Maud Lewis was tiny and stooped, it was advancing rheumatoid arthritis that was her greatest challenge. When she was a girl, her mother taught her to hand-paint Christmas cards, which they sold. She also learned how to play piano, “a pastime she enjoyed until her fingers became further ravaged by arthritis.”
More difficulties followed. After her parents died in the late 1930s, her older brother claimed the family inheritance. Then she had a child out of wedlock, a baby girl who was immediately put up for adoption. She answered a housekeeping ad, but by then her arthritis was too advanced for her to do the work.
Still, she married Everett Lewis, the man who placed the ad, a fish peddler with only a grade one education. Much of her adult life was spent sitting in a window in his tiny house, painting oils on surfaces like particleboard, cardboard, and wallpaper. She also covered nearly all the surfaces of the house, inside and out, with paintings of brightly colored flowers, birds, and butterflies. In 1970, at the age of 67, Lewis died in hospital of pneumonia. “She was buried in a child’s coffin and laid to rest in a pauper’s grave.”
Yet, this brief sketch misses a life well lived.
In her lifetime, there was not much of a safety net, especially for a reclusive rural woman living in poverty. Her birth defects were never addressed, and at that time there was little that could be done about Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). Even today, treatment often includes powerful anti-inflammatory drugs with severe side effects that build up over time. Still, effective science-based treatments that don’t rely on conventional drugs are slowly becoming mainstream.
Yet in the few photographs of her, most with her claw-like hands clutching a painting or a brush, Maud Lewis is smiling. This is the true lesson of her life, a testament to both her resilience and also the real joy she received from creating and meeting the patrons who visited her to buy her work. This joy outshone her many disadvantages because Lewis was indeed a true artist. Her subjects were based on memories recalled from her childhood. Farms, woodlots, country roads, fishing villages. Men driving oxen, women hanging clothes out to dry. Animals: birds, bees, cats, horses, oxen. Sometimes in close-up. Often staring straight at the viewer.
Untrained, except as a girl by her mother, she developed her own natural style that became more sophisticated with time. The compositions became more detailed and so did her use of color, until in her later works her deformed hands forced her to revert to the simple style of her early works.
Gradually her works went out into the world and were discovered by collectors, including other artists, who recognized her natural talent. Inevitably, forgeries came on the scene, a sort of back-handed compliment.
Lewis captured her small part of the planet in the way all true artists do. Her work is suffused with the joy a young person feels as they explore the world. Looking back in time, we see solitary figures, wagons, early automobiles, animals, flowers, trees, white snow, and clouds against the blue sky. As economic and demographic growth turn Canada’s rural landscapes into highways and shopping malls, her simple appeal becomes more powerful than ever.
A travelling exhibition of the work of Maud Lewis is currently at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, where it joins the resident exhibit of her work, including her “painted house.”
Author:David Holt is the editor of Silver Magazine.
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