Why Maud Lewis deserves the spotlight




SaltWire Network



What do Picasso, Lucian Freud, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Vanessa Bell, Henry Moore, Andy Warhol and Canadian artist Maud Lewis have in common? They are all part of an upcoming exhibition, A Century of the Artist’s Studio 19202020, at Whitechapel Gallery, London, U.K., taking place from Feb. 17 to May 29, 2022. To be included in an exhibition along with over 80 great artists of the 20th century is important recognition for Maud Lewis. Lewis first achieved fame in 1965 via an article in the Toronto Star Weekly – The Little Old Lady Who Painted Pretty Pictures, by Murray Barnard, with photographs by Bob Brooks. This was followed that same year by a CBC program, Once Upon a Time in the World of Maud Lewis. From then on, Lewis became the most famous citizen of Digby County, Nova Scotia. Lance Woolaver’s numerous published works – including The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis and Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door – followed. In 2017, the film Maudie starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, brought further attention to Lewis, and in 2019 the McMichael Gallery –renowned for its Group of Seven collection – held a major exhibition of her work that is currently touring the country. Behind the familiar story of Maud Lewis and her life with husband Everett, living in poverty in their oneroom home with no running water or electricity, is that of Maud Lewis the artist. Today, her work warrants closer analysis. I describe Maud Lewis as a selftaught artist. I believe her work is unique, not like any other artist in Nova Scotia or on this continent. She broke rules, muddling the seasons to good effect. She was more interested in colour and design than visual accuracy. Her use of colour adds weight and balance to her paintings. Early colours vary from random boat and house paint, scrounged by Everett, to a more conventional palette using artists’ paints and brushes. Lewis’s paintings possess echoes or repetitions. Her work has its own rhythms, frequently drawing the viewer into the painting from an oblique angle, and creating movement by the precise placement of people, animals and objects. She used schemas such as Doe and Fawn and inserted them in different settings. A Maud Lewis painting has a high horizon. As the late Harold Pearse (1942-2020) said to me, “Maud Lewis is like a medieval painter — she likes to fill the board.” Pearse was also the first to describe Maud Lewis as “a serial image artist.” In other words, she does many similar paintings but no two paintings are exactly alike. Certain serial images, the Cats, Covered Bridge in Winter and Wedding Party are found only in the 1960s; other serial images, which span three decades, include her Model T Ford, Sandy Cove, Schoolhouse and Train Station paintings. Lewis painted over 80 different serial images. Over her lifetime, her paintings changed from small and detailed works to more simplified images on larger boards. Following media attention in 1965, she was inundated with requests for paintings. Due to her physical weakness in the last few years of her life she sometimes substituted paint with marker. She also replaced beaverboard with Masonite boards, but not exclusively. Ontario artist John Kinnear was especially generous, sending Lewis paints, brushes and pre-primed boards. I am convinced that in the future, outstanding Maud Lewis works from the 1940s will surface. I am looking forward to seeing her paintings of orange marmalade cats as well as a commissioned Siamese Cat. The oversized painting Garden Party, acquired through John Kinnear, is probably somewhere in Ontario, and The Pennsylvania Railroad, commissioned by someone in the United States, needs to resurface. It would also be great to see Super 8 films or photographs of Maud and Everett. Someone, surely, has a photograph of the Chaplin cottage near Carter’s Beach, in Port Mouton, N.S., showing the exterior shutters that Lewis painted in the early 1940s. I’m convinced the best paintings are yet to come. Anyone with knowledge of earlier Maud Lewis works that have yet to surface is encouraged to contact the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Alan Deacon is a recognized authority on the work of Maud Lewis. He lives in Nova Scotia.