Thursday, September 2, 2010

Maud Lewis – Canadian Folk Artist

Rise above the storm and you will find the sunshine.

During a recent cruise to Halifax, I visited the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and was delighted to discover the charming works of Nova Scotia folk artist, Maud Lewis (1903-1970). Inspiration can certainly come from unlikely places and through unlikely people...

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. - Eleanor Roosevelt

Although disfigured and disabled as a result of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, impoverished, untrained, and married to an itinerant fish peddler, Everett Lewis, who "wasn't exactly Prince Charming,” Maud produced, during the last 30 years of her life, a torrent of sparkling, joyous, and uplifting paintings and cards. Her works - painted with old found brushes; a sardine tin palette; and marine, house, or cheap craft paints on found boards, cardboard, shells, stones, and household implements such as trays and dustpans – initially sold for as little as two dollars each. I was told by an antiquarian book dealer who I met in St. John, New Brunswick, that two Maud Lewis paintings sold at auction this summer in New Brunswick for several thousands of dollars each.

You can live without some things if you have something to live for.

Although she was not a formally trained artist, Maud's work demonstrates that she had a strong sense of composition and learned from close observation of any visual material that came her way -- postcards, calendars, greeting cards, etc. Her art has been said to reflect "an inner light that found joy in memories and imaginings of life."

No matter how tall the mountain it can not block out the sun...

Maud lived most of her life in poverty with her husband in a very small (4.1 x 3.8 meters) house near the Bay of Fundy with no indoor plumbing, running water, or electricity; sleeping in a small loft upstairs; and weathering the Marshalltown, Nova Scotia winters with only a woodstove. Because of Maud’s worsening rheumatoid arthritis, she was unable to do housework. Everett took care of the house, gardening and cooking; and Maud decorated every surface of the house, inside and out, and many of its contents with her bright and cheerful painting. The Maud-painted house, currently on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, shows that Maud's life, despite many limitations, was full of enjoyment through her art.

Let your hopes, not your hurts shape your future.

We find in life exactly what we put in it. - Emerson

Maud began her artistic career by hand-drawing Christmas cards. These proved popular with her husband's customers as he sold fish door to door and encouraged her to begin painting. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, tourists stopped by the little house - after seeing her roadside sign, "Paintings for sale" - to purchase her work, and found a quiet woman with a delightful smile. Her pleasure didn't come from the pride of having done a painting, but from the creative act itself and the enjoyment others seemed to derive from her work.

Obstacles are opportunities in disguise.

After Maud’s death in 1970 and, subsequently, Everett’s in 1979, the lovingly painted home began to deteriorate. In reaction, a group of concerned citizens from the Digby area started the Maud Lewis Painted House Society; their only goal - to save this valued landmark. After a number of years of fundraising, the society realized that the project was going to take more resources than they could gather. In 1984, the house was sold to the Province of Nova Scotia and turned over to the care of Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. In 1996, with funds from the federal Department of Canadian Heritage and from private individuals, the processes of conservation and restoration began. Thus, the final, fully restored house is on permanent display in Halifax at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Maud is the subject of a book, The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis, and a stage play has been written about her life. She is also the subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary, Maud Lewis - A World without Shadows (1997). In the short film from the I Can Make Art Like... series, a group of Grade 6 students are inspired by Maud Lewis’ works to create a folk art painting of their own downtown neighborhood.

For more information and to purchase Maud Lewis prints, cards and T-shirts, see the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia website and be sure to view their interactive website about the moving and restoration of Maud’s little house, as well as the virtual tour.

Great people are ordinary people with extraordinary amounts of determination.


  1. A joy to visit your lovely site. Thank you for stopping by an introducing yourself. Now a follower, will be looking forward to a return visit :)

  2. Oh Cassandra what a beautiful post! Although I was born and raised in Montreal I had never heard of this sweet lady. As a struggling artist who often gets frustrated with not having the right supplies or a lovely studio like the ones I see on so many blogs, I am humbled by what this wonderful woman created with the little she had. That she found such joy using her limited resources has put a whole new light on my work. I shall never complain again!
    Thank you so much for this post it has totally changed the way I see my life as an artist.
    Tina xo

  3. What a spectacular post about this amazing , spectacular woman. Really enjoyed this, should spur us all on in life, thanks much, Gina

  4. What a sweet little house! I love the birdies on the branch. And yes, Tina, I often complain too about my lack of a perfect studio, no time, no place, no supplies... It's important to just be creative with the little things you have.

  5. I had never heard of Maud before now. Hers is what I call folkart, something I have always loved. In a way, her work reminds me of Gramma Moses, but with different subject matter, and joyous colors.
    Tina, for years and years, I worked on my art at the kitchen table. An expensive studio isn't necessary, just a cozy corner.

  6. Dear Cassandra,
    Thank you for sharing these wonderful paintings with us. It shows that despite all one's happiness and creativity cannot be held back and comes out. It is like a strong river.
    The picture on her rheumatoid hands bring tears to my eyes, but her paintings are such a delight. I will visit the art gallery's website.
    Something went wrong with my earlier comment - it disappeared into cyberspace, so I hope this one will be visible.
    Have a happy day!

  7. While at a convention in Halifax last week, I too discovered Maud Lewis -- and Joe. Nichols as well -- just a small part of the amazing group of folk artists who seem to thrive in that nurturing environment. I was googling Maud Lewis to see what else I could find -- and happily saw your blog with such a detailed tribute to her life and work.

    My dogs have a blog, the Barkalot Boyz -- and we'd love to have you drop by. They're not as poetic as you are -- but in their woofy way they have led us to many many beautiful people in the blogosphere.



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