Despite being a national heroine, Maud Lewis has long been on the fringes of the Canadian art world.
This excerpt is adapted from Maud Lewis: Life and Work, the latest edition of the Art Institute Canada’s Online Canadian Art Book Project.
Maud Lewis is one of Canada’s most beloved artists: well known during her lifetime and even more celebrated since her death. Its enduring popularity has been reflected in documentaries and books, in an acclaimed feature film, Curse (2016), and in the play A world without shadows (Lance Woolaver, 2016). Most recently, in 2020, a series of postage stamps featuring his work was issued by Canada Post. Yet despite Lewis’s fame, his paintings have not been collected by many key Canadian museums, including the National Gallery of Canada.
When it comes to exhibitions, she has often been overlooked, dismissed as having created “folk art” rather than serious visual art. Its history reflects both the prejudices of the art world and the fascinating power of a rich and colorful work.
Lewis’s life was limited by the distance between two of the major towns in southwestern Nova Scotia. Born in Yarmouth in 1901, she moved to Marshalltown in 1937, where she married Everett Lewis, a fish merchant whom she met when he posted an ad seeking a wife to “live in or keep the House “. Marriage brought her into a world of poverty that she had never known. To improve the couple’s finances, Lewis quickly developed her own business, creating greeting cards and then paintings that she sold from their small home.
She also painted the interior of the house, covering it with colorful flowers and birds. In his art, Lewis presented a cheerful and sentimental look at the rural past of his part of Nova Scotia. In her painted world, life can seem like one long succession of sleigh and horse-drawn carriage rides, flowering fruit trees, sailing calm waters, and just enough honest work to stay active – logging, fishing, Agriculture. She designed a unique and instantly recognizable style, in part because she suffered from Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, a painful and progressive condition that impacted the way she held a brush.
Lewis’s painting career would likely have remained a predominantly local phenomenon had it not been for freelance Halifax reporter Cora Greenaway, who interviewed her for the CBC Radio show. Trans-Canada morning aired in February 1964. It aroused public interest, and in July 1965 the Weekly Star (Toronto) sent freelance writer Murray Barnard from Halifax to write about Lewis; the feature film that followed aroused enormous curiosity, like the title of its title, “The little old lady who paints pretty pictures”. That same year, Maud and Everett were visited by a CBC Television film crew. Telescope. As a result of this national attention, many people wrote to Lewis asking for paintings, creating a scramble for his work that never wavered.
With his popular success, Lewis was the forerunner of an explosion in what has come to be known as “Nova Scotia Folk Art”. Folk art – or art created by untrained artists – is by no means limited to Nova Scotia and traditionally is decorative items made by people for their own use. For many decades, it was typically found in history museums rather than art galleries. Most of the arts institutions in this country continue to exclude folk art from their collecting mandates, identifying it as a craft rather than an art. But from the 1970s, a booming movement developed in Nova Scotia that was unique. Fueled in large part by the recognition Lewis gained as an artist, folk art began to be taken seriously in the province and found a new place in art galleries such as the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. .
Lewis was among the first Canadian folk artists to engage directly with the art market. Her paintings were not produced for herself, but for sale, which makes her markedly different from the untrained artisan prostitutes who made flooring for their cold houses, or from the sculptors who decorated the yokes that their women wore. oxen when they plowed their fields. In Nova Scotia, before Lewis, collectors found folk art in homes and barns in rural villages, and it was the act of collecting that transformed a tool, blanket, weather vane, or other utility piece. in “art”. Although in interviews she resisted being named an artist, Lewis made objects that were clearly art: painted scenes – including kittens, cows, seascapes, and country panoramas – on offer. on sale. In doing so, she changed the dynamics of folk art. Those who followed in his footsteps, including Joe Norris (1924-1996), Collins Eisenhauer (1898-1979) and Ralph Boutilier (1906-1989), all untrained artists, produced works for exhibition.
With the rise in popularity of folk art, Nova Scotia’s most enduring artistic exports have become works produced outside of its major hub, Halifax. The city may be the economic engine of the province, but it was the folk art created in Lunenburg and Digby counties that caught the attention of the general public. Folk art from Nova Scotia has become a style in its own right, with an annual exhibition in Lunenburg – the Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival – taking place since 1989.
After his death in 1970, there was little institutional interest in Lewis’ art, with the exception of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The Canadian Museum of History actively collected Nova Scotia folk art in the 1970s, but has only a few paintings by Lewis. The National Gallery of Canada does not have one. It was not until 1997 that Lewis was the subject of a traveling museum exhibition, organized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
A little over two decades later, the enduring popularity of his work prompted an exhibition of his art in China, organized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2019. A major solo exhibition that same year at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Ontario, the gallery often considered a monument to the Group of Seven, was extremely popular. The exhibition is on tour and will open at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in November, highlighting how the status of Lewis’s work in the art world continues to be reconsidered half a century after his death. Most importantly, it underscores how the Canadian public continues to love Maud Lewis’ work.