“Well, I ain’t no real artist,” Maud Lewis famously said in 1961, “I just like to paint.”1 Not true. Maud Lewis was very much a real artist. I recently visited an exhibition of Lewis’s work at the Western Branch of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Yarmouth. In addition, on my way I stopped in to see the permanent installation of her work at the gallery’s main venue in Halifax. Both were eye-opening experiences.
Labelling artists is frustrating at best. Lewis has been incorrectly called a primitive artist, but that is a term, now rarely used, by anthropologists to describe non-Western tribal art. More often she is labelled a folk artist – the term that the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia prefers. The term I like is “outsider artist.” I realize that there are critics and art historians who would disagree, but hear me out. There are those who would limit outsider art to work made by psychotics. I do not. The French use a term coined by Jean Dubuffet, art brut, for art that is made by artists without any formal training in art and often with no exposure to museum-quality art. “Folk art” all too often positions artists and their products on the lower end of a hierarchy that is still in use in the art world. Simply put, art is the product that artists make, be they Rembrandt or Maud Lewis, and (as I have been writing for the last fifty years) art can, and does, stand apart from the artist who made it regardless of the hierarchies of today’s art world. So, let us call it all art. However, Lewis certainly fits my definition of an outsider artist. She had no real formal art training apart from what she learned from her mother painting Christmas cards with her as a child. She saw little, likely no, high art as she lived her whole life within sixty kilometres of her Yarmouth birthplace, travelling only once to Halifax.
The subjects that Maud Lewis used for her work were drawn from what she saw around her, memories, and the occasional magazine illustration. She said in interviews that her pictures usually portrayed memories of her childhood. Like most outsider artists, she was not trying to paint in a folk or primitive style. She was painting as “realistically” as she could. It was realism to her, and therein rests the charm of her work. Very little of her early work still exists, but the few pieces that have survived exhibit a higher level of what one thinks of as realism than the work that she is now known for. This is because of juvenile arthritis, the disease that shaped both her life and her art. As she grew older, her hands curled into a shape that made it increasingly more difficult for her to hold and control a brush. The result was a more “folkish” style. All of this points to an artist with a disability, but Lewis’s art is not about her disability – it is about her ability.
There is no accurate count of the number of paintings that Lewis produced, but they were numerous, as she painted pretty much full bore until her death in 1970. It doesn’t help that she did not date or title her works and sometimes did not bother to sign them. In addition, she often repeated themes – cats, oxen, horses in snow – time after time.
The subjects that Maud Lewis used for her work were drawn from what she saw around her, memories, and the occasional magazine illustration.
Lewis was born Maude Dowley in Yarmouth in 1901 into a lower-middle-class family and was raised there and in the nearby village of South Ohio. There has been a certain amount of mystery concerning her birthplace and age. Until recently, it was recorded that she was born in South Ohio in 1903, but recent research of birth records confirms that she was indeed born in Yarmouth in 1901. Adding to the confusion was that Lewis repeated the false birthplace and birth date in interviews before her death in 1970. In any case, the Yarmouth gallery is a natural place for an exhibition of her art. It is a small show of fourteen pieces, but they have all been carefully chosen from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s collection to represent a good overview of her work. There are twelve paintings, but what I found particularly interesting was two painted ceramic bedside lamps with painted shades. The two lamps are very special and very pretty. They make you want to smile. They are the earliest works in the exhibition, both painted sometime during the 1940s. One is titled Deer in Stream, and the other Cabin on a Lake. They were likely painted by Lewis for use in the tiny house that she lived in with her husband, Everett, in Marshalltown, a village closer to Digby than to Yarmouth, where she lived from 1938 until her death. That house is now a national treasure; it has been restored and is now located inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. The inside walls, the outside walls, the furniture, the stove – you name it – were painted by Lewis. I get the idea that if it wasn’t nailed down – no, even if it was nailed down – Lewis would paint it. There are examples of painted scallop shells that people bought to use as ashtrays. I assume that the people who did use them as ashtrays, if they are still alive, are now kicking themselves, as their two-dollar purchase would now be worth quite a bit more.
“Smile” is a good word when it comes to Lewis’s work. There are always blue skies in her paintings. That is their magic. She lived a life full of physical pain. Juvenile arthritis is very painful, and it became more so as she grew older. There was no medication and no cure. (Even today there is not really a cure, but there are medications.) What drove her to paint will remain a mystery. I would like to think that it was her joy of life rather than an escape from pain and suffering. A painting such as Dog Chasing Car (c. 1960s), in the Yarmouth exhibition, is a case in point. Nothing dramatic, a black dog chases a Model T truck down a country road. We know that Everett owned a Model T truck, and that early in their married life she accompanied him as he went door to door selling fish. So, there is a happy memory and a really good small painting. Lewis is well known for her cat pictures. There is a nice one in the exhibition, Three Black Cats (c. 1960s). The title says it all. Her cats, in this picture and in all her cat paintings, have a certain human quality that is hard to dismiss. Another version of Three Black Cats sold at auction for over $22,000 in November 2018.
There is much to love about the art and life of Maud Lewis. It is wonderfully strange that even after she became very well known, in both Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada, in 1965, she refused to raise the prices for her work, much to the frustration of friends and her art dealer. She kept selling her pieces for around five dollars. She thought that if she raised her prices people would stop buying. An attempt to produce prints of her work while she was alive did not go very far, as the prints were priced higher than her original work. However, the real value of her art is in her vision of the world that she portrayed so well.
I am sure that Maud Lewis is the best-known and, certainly, the most-beloved artist in Nova Scotia. What a remarkable feat for a woman who never travelled more than a few kilometres from her Yarmouth birthplace. That has to prove that something is right in this world.
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Yarmouth
June 23, 2018 – June 9, 2019