Beloved Canadian folk artist, Maud Lewis (1903 – 1970) is famous for her brightly coloured paintings of rural Nova Scotia. Working from her cabin on the side of the highway in Marshalltown, Digby County, she produced hundreds of small works that captured aspects of country life that were rapidly changing. 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 Crayola’s a lot. Kind of practicing up, I suppose,” Lewis laughs in a 1965 television documentary about her life and work.
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 had 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. Lewis sold the paintings from her little house at the side of the road where she lived with her husband, Everett.
Lewis’ 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.
“I paint all from memory, I don’t copy much,” Lewis says, smiling wide in the documentary. “Because I don’t go nowhere, I just make my own designs up.”
Lewis had an instinctive gift for colour and composition, and she put that gift to remarkable use in her variations on set themes—from cats and kittens, to covered bridges, to her scenes of boats in harbour and the Maritime landscape in all seasons, Maud Lewis made paintings that still delight in their optimism and buoyant vitality. 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. Still, Lewis’ art has a childlike feeling. No shadows at all. Everything is happy lively.
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, the prices of her paintings have swelled. One of her works, discovered in a thrift shop, sold for over $45,000 at auction; another for £36,000; and one for $125,000!
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 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. The property was moved from its original location in the 1980s and is on display at the museum in Halifax, 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 The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. “And also, that she produced such amazing, cheerful artwork that could have otherwise been very depressing considering the difficult life she led.”
Lewis is a cult figure in Canada, and now beyond her native country with Maudie, a biopic released in 2016 starring Sally Hawkins in the title role, with Ethan Hawke as her husband Everett. The award winning film, directed by British filmmaker Aisling Walsh and written by Canadian screenwriter Sherry White, focuses on Lewis’s resilience as an artist, despite hardships.