Maud Lewis goes Hollywood

It’s a long way from turn-of-the-century Yarmouth County Nova Scotia to Hollywood, but Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis has made the trip. At least by reputation.

This impoverished woman knew just about every hardship life could throw at a person. Her escape was into the bright, busy, happy world she painted.

Lewis was born with several physical challenges in 1903, long before universal health care was available in Canada. Among her identified conditions were severe scoliosis and crippling rheumatoid arthritis that deformed her fingers. These challenges and her diminutive, elf-like size made her an easy target of mockery by other children. So her early years were spent closely protected by her doting parents. Some believe this was the happiest time of her life.

Her parents’ deaths left her homeless. Her brother, who took over the family farm in Yarmouth County on the southern tip of Nova Scotia, made no provisions for Maud, so she went to live with an aunt in Digby on the shores of the Bay of Fundy. In her strained circumstances she answered an ad for a housekeeper placed by Everett Lewis.

The hand-painted interior of Maud Lewis’ tiny home. (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia photo)

Lewis was a part-time fisherman/peddler and jack-of-all trades, who lived in a 10’x12’ roadside shack that lacked plumbing and electricity. Lewis’ own strained circumstances were bottle-induced. Descriptions of him suggest a cranky, miserly individual, who, the cynical believe, proposed to Maud as a way to avoid paying her for the housework she did. Later, seeing she could paint, he peddled her works as a way to supplement the household income and supply his love of drink. He handled what little money there was, so on rare occasions when Maud could visit friends in Yarmouth, they hosted “pound parties” for her, giving her a pound of lard, sugar or corned beef to take back to the shack.

Maud’s her hand-painted cards and paintings sold for $2 and $5. In April 2017, a thrift store find sold for  $125,000! Among Maud’s early fans were former N.S. Premier Robert Stanfield and U.S. President Richard Nixon.

The Digby Vistor’s Centre pays homage to Maud by decorating the exterior of the offices with classic Maud scenes. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Some have described her work as “exuberant.” In artistic shorthand she is also likened to a Canadian Grandma Moses.

Maud used marine or house paints, whatever Everett brought back, on particleboard and cardboard. The subjects of her world inhabit a boldly, colourful world populated by happy people and animals, and movement, whether riding in a horse-drawn wagon through the countryside or children at play. Perhaps it’s a wistful idea of what she wanted. But in spite of her life, there is no time for darkness in her work.

Painting was Maud’s passion and her escape. When not producing something for sale, Maud made her tiny house her biggest canvas, painting every surface of it and in it, from cupboards to windowpanes, woodstove right down to the dustpan. Fortunately, her home was purchased by the Province of Nova Scotia, dismantled, moved and reconstructed in the Art Galley of Nova Scotia. It is one of the most unusual – and moving – art pieces in Canada.

Maud Lewis’s painted house is a 3D canvas. The actual original location of her home now contains a ghost structure to show where it stood.

Now, after many books and documentaries, Hollywood via Ireland, is telling her story in Maudie. Ethan Hawke and Susan Hawkins play Everett and Maud. Their performances are winning praise from critics and audiences at film festivals from Halifax to Calgary, Toronto to Telluride.

The interest in her work, her life, her vision is an amazing tribute for someone buried in a child’s coffin in a pauper’s grave and who likely never saw television or a film.

To see her painted home, visit the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia at 1723 Hollis Street, Halifax, directly across from the Provincial Legislature. It is open seven days a week and fully accessible.

For information about Maud Lewis and other Nova Scotian folk artists, click on: