With no formal training, Maud Lewis painted the colourful scenes and character of rural Nova Scotia using random art supplies and painful hands
Her hands gnarled into untenable positions, her shoulders permanently hunched and with a chin marred at birth, Maud Lewis sat at the window in her tiny home and created bright, cheerful scenes of rural Nova Scotia. An untrained oil painter, Maud created simple, striking folk art that would bring the world to her doorstep.
In 1903, John and Agnes Dowley of Ohio, Yarmouth County, NS, and their son Charles, welcomed the birth of a baby girl into their family. Born small with facial irregularities – she had almost no chin – Maud grew to be a happy little girl, according to Canadian Artist Biography Database. She developed childhood rheumatoid arthritis that caused her hands and arms to pull in and tighten in awkward positions and made movement painfully difficult. But even with such hardship, the beloved Maud learned to play the piano, entertaining her family with delightful music. And Maud learned to paint.
Lewis Painted Christmas Cards
At Christmastimes for years, Maud’s mother taught her daughter to paint and they created and sold festive cards to family and friends. This was the only art training Maud received. Attending school until Grade 5, Maud left school, probably due to the endless mean teasing of classmates, said Canadian Encyclopedia. She was 14 years old.
Maud’s parents died in the 1930s, first her father in 1935, then her mother in 1937. She lived with her brother and his family briefly then moved in with an aunt in Digby, Nova Scotia. Her brother claimed the family inheritance as his own, leaving Maud dependent. Maud bore a child in the 1930s who was put up for adoption and disappeared from her mother’s life.
An ad for a housekeeper in Marshalltown caught Maud’s eye in 1938. Everett Lewis was a fish peddler who needed help. Maud moved in to his home, a small one-room cottage with a loft bed-space and before long, they married. The house had none of the modern conveniences: no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no television. Not the most pleasant of lives, Maud’s only source of information about the world was a battery-powered radio. Her arthritis reached a stage where she was unable to do the housework, but painting was still possible. Bursting with ideas, Maud painted every surface of the tiny building, inside and out, including the woodstove and cookie sheets. Most days were spent sitting on a chair by the front window, with its good natural light for painting.
Painted Vibrant Colours
Painting on anything, Maud’s brush brought pieces of paper, cardboard, wood, pulp board, anything with a paintable surface, to life with flowers, kids, trees and churches. Winter scenes, water scenes, roadside scenes, cats, horses and oxen were painted in vibrant hues. Maud did not mix paints but used the strong fullness of primary colours. She used any oil paint on hand, from house paint to marine paint to cheap craft paint, and any brushes handy. The artist was prolific in her work, creating hundreds of pieces.
Selling her cards on her husband’s fish delivery route, Maud also sold her folk art paintings from home for a very low price. Some sold for $2.50 each. A store took some of her paintings to sell and business perked up but, Canadian Encyclopedia said, none sold for more than $10. Her husband was of a miserly spirit, hiding her profits under floor boards and taking the batteries out of the radio to conserve power.
Fame Found Maud Lewis
Fame knocked on Maud’s door in 1965 through a CBC documentary on her life, and with a Toronto Star Weekly article displaying the work of photographer Bob Brooks that included Maud and her art. Then in her 60s, she found herself inundated with painting projects that included two from American President Richard Nixon’s White House. Some of the orders were never filled due to the painful progression of arthritis in her hands.
Maud Lewis died in 1967 of pneumonia, probably aggravated by the wood smoke and paint fumes that were part of her daily life for decades. On her passing, her paintings rose dramatically in price. Her husband Everett tried his hand at painting, managing to make forgeries of her pieces that were then selling for huge fees. Everett died nine years later in 1975, after resisting an intruder.
See the permanent exhibit of Maud Lewis’ work and life at the Nova Scotia Art Gallery.
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2008. Copyright Susanna McLeod