The Joyous World of Overlooked Canadian Folk Artist Maud Lewis
Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis spent 32 years of her life in a one-room house on a secluded dirt road in Nova Scotia. By the time of her death in 1970, she’d covered nearly every surface of the little home with joyous paintings: Clusters of tulips filled the windows, birds and butterflies fluttered across the door. Even the dustpan was covered with daisies.
“I paint all from memory, I don’t copy much,” Lewis says, smiling wide, in a 1965 television documentary about her life and work. “Because I don’t go nowhere, I just make my own designs up.”
Lewis is a cult figure in Canada. And the idiosyncratic painter’s reputation should be cemented beyond her native country with Maudie, a biopic released today starring Sally Hawkins in the title role, with Ethan Hawke as her husband Everett. The film, directed by British filmmaker Aisling Walsh and written by Canadian screenwriter Sherry White, focuses on Lewis’s resilience as an artist, despite hardships.
During the last five years of her life, a steady stream of locals and tourists—intrigued by Lewis’s paintings, as well as her buoyant spirit and reclusive lifestyle—came knocking at the door of the home she shared with her husband, fish peddler Everett. They bought Lewis’s colorful scenes of Nova Scotia life for five dollars a pop. Recently, 47 years after Lewis’s death, her celebrity—and, in step, the prices of her paintings—have swelled. This May, one of her works, discovered in a thrift shop, sold for over $45,000 at auction.
Lewis was born in 1903 in the small, seaside town of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. At a young age, she was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis that left her with a pained and crooked gait. Confined largely to her parents’ home, she began to draw. “I used to paint with Crayolas a lot. Kind of practicing up, I suppose,” Lewis laughs in the 1965 documentary.
After her parents died when she was in her early thirties, Lewis went to live with an aunt. Not long after, she answered an ad from a local fishmonger—Everett Lewis. He was looking for woman to help around the house. Several weeks later, they were married.
The exact timeline is fuzzy, but at some point after she moved into Everett’s home, she began painting on its wooden surfaces. She’d travel into town with Everett and sell unique handpainted Christmas cards, and then moved on to larger surfaces: boards cut by her husband.
Lewis’s paintings show scenes she glimpsed through her little home’s window, and memories from childhood or her infrequent trips to town. There are oxen decorated with bells and flanked by trees exploding with pink blossoms; carriages filled with brightly outfitted people, trailed by bounding dogs; seagulls soaring over placid seaside landscapes. And then there are the fan favorites: wide-eyed cats lounging in tulip fields.
Claire Stenning, an art dealer and early supporter, describes her sense of Lewis’s compositions in the 1965 documentary. They have a “childlike, tremendous feeling,” she said. “No shadows at all. Everything is happy and gay and quick and lively.”
The joyousness of Lewis’s paintings may be surprising given the difficulties she faced. As a child, she was made fun of for her arthritis, which worsened over the course of her life, gnarling her body and hands.
Her husband Everett, by most accounts, was no picnic either. In the documentary, we get a glimpse of their dynamic: A tall, toothless Everett grumbles about Maud’s free spirit, at one point carping that he receives more kisses from his dogs than from his wife.
And while Maud ended up becoming the primary breadwinner after word of her talents spread, Everett “still found room to complain that he did the chores,” says Shannon Parker, Curator of Collections at The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, which owns 55 of Lewis’s works, including her greatest achievement: her own home. Lewis continued painting her happy scenes and retained her unflappably positive outlook until her death, in 1970. The property was moved from its original location in the 1980s, and is on display at the museum in Nova Scotia, the best evidence of her exuberant style and spirit.
“Visitors are so impressed that someone could live for over 30 years in such a small space,” says Parker. “And also that she produced such amazing, cheerful artwork that could have otherwise been very depressing considering the difficult life she led.”