Acrylic on mounted gessoed aluminium panel, 14 x 11"
Painting #293, 2022
When I first visited the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS) located in Halifax back in the late 1980's, I distinctly remember a display of folk art that was part of the museum's permanent collection on one of the upper floors. Among the painters that stood out to me at the time were Joseph Norris (1925-1996) and Maud Lewis (1901 or 1903? -1970). I became aware that this institution held folk art to the same standards as the more academic art movements.
Maud Lewis in her painted house, photo Bob Brooks
Much has already been written about Maud Dowley Lewis. With the passage of time and sustained public interest, her popularity has only continued to grow. In recent years, she has been elevated to the status of an icon. It's impossible to separate the artist from the life she lead and the artwork she created. While her story is defined by poverty, hardship, physical disabilities and rheumatoid arthritis that gradually started to affect her mobility by mid-life, it was also one of triumph over adversity that was sparked by her creativity and her temperament to endure.
Her paintings are a celebration of life and the beauty she observed in her own little world located in Digby and Yarmouth Co. Nova Scotia. Unlike her own life, her paintings are happy, whimsical and colorful. Subject matter often remain within the domain of birds, flowers, oxen, cats, deer, modes of transportations (pulled sleigh or wagons, cars, trucks, boats), bucolic winter, pastoral and costal scenes. These themes and imagery were revisited time and again.
Photo op on the Halifax Waterfront - May 2022
While growing up, Maud Lewis was introduced to art and painting by her mother. She crafted hand made Christmas cards done in pen and ink, watercolors and crayola crayons and sold them door to door. After the death of her father in 1935, then later her mother in 1937 she moved out of the family's South Ohio home. There is a brief transition period where she lived with her brother Charles then with her aunt Ida in Digby. Her acquaintance with Everett Lewis was a result of answering an ad when he was looking to hire a housekeeper. They married in 1938 of what appeared to be a mariage of convenience. Her painting career gradually evolved over the 30 years that followed. Her signature painting style was not restricted to panels and boards but could also be found on rock, scallop shells and household items. With her reputation growing over time, the little painted house in Marshalltown would become a popular roadside attraction for locals, visitors and tourists alike with many becoming patrons and collectors of her paintings.
Her work began garnering unsolicited attention by the media during the 1960's. During the Richard Nixon administration either as US president or vice president (conflicting reports), he would have commissioned two paintings. NS premier Robert Stanfield also started to collect her work. In 1965, writer Murray Bernard and photographer Bob Brooks of the Star Weekly Magazine published by the Toronto Star were dispatched to Marshalltown to do a story on Maud. This nation wide publicity would increase demands for her paintings and elevate her status as a painter. The photography taken by Brooks remains the quintessential pictures taken of her as an artist. On November 25, 1965, CBC's biography series Telescope aired a 30 minute televised documentary on the Lewis couple. (A portion of this documentary can be viewed on this CBC LINK . )
Much has also been written about the relationship with her husband, Everett Lewis. In his case, not always in the best light. With the thousands of paintings sold, he could have provided a much better life for her. Her paintings sold for about $2 to 3 dollars at first with gradual price increase to 5 dollars and 7 to 10 dollars for larger paintings. With inflation, a 5 dollar painting would be have been worth the equivalent of about $47 in 2022. While their house was very small, they also lived without indoor plumbing, running water or electricity.
Everett Lewis (b.1893) was raised in the Alms House in Marshalltown, NS. after his father abandoned the family while he was still a child. It was an institution known locally as the "Poor Farm". He had no formal education, he never learned to read or write. He earned a living as a fish peddler and also worked at Alms House as a night watchman then later as caretaker. The parcel of land that Everett bought for his house was an adjacent lot to the Alms House. In the 1965 CBC documentary, we can see Everett leaving the house on his bicycle and passing in front of the Alms House about 200 meters away. Despite living in poverty, Everett had a reputation of being a miser and had accumulated considerable wealth by the time of his unfortunate and untimely death in 1979. Everett himself dabbled in folk art creating paintings that were very much inspired by Maud. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia would acquire some of his work while he was still living.
In 1961, Ten-Mile House and Art Gallery in Bedford, NS owned by Bill Ferguson And Claire Stenning started selling her paintings doubling the purchase price to 10 dollars since these were framed. Maud and Everett Lewis didn't want to appear greedy by increasing the price of the paintings in fear of losing customers and alienating an already established market.
My wife Suzanne with the Painted House, AGNS - May 2022
Interior of the Maud Lewis House, AGNS, Halifax, NS
Part of Maud's legacy is the little painted house they lived in with many surfaces and objects used as her canvas. From the window, walls, doors, stairs to dustpan, cooking stove and breadbox. Their house would become her greatest work. After Maud's passing, Everett did little to nothing in upkeeping the house. In 1979, The Painted House Society was formed in Digby following Everett's death. The house, land and copyrights were purchased by the society from Everett's heir the following year. Unable to raise the $50,000 needed to restore the house, the estate was sold to the Province of Nova Scotia in 1984. The house was moved to a secure indoor location outside Halifax in order to prevent further decay. It would take another decade before restoration would be undertaken and to plan for it's permanent home once the restauration completed. The Scotiabank Maud Lewis Gallery which also included the house opened to the public in 1998 part of the expansion of the AGNS.
Since her death, the AGNS has been a major catalyst in preserving her legacy, with the restauration of the house and amassing a collection of her paintings that is on permanent public display.
Author Lance Woolaver whom has become Maud Lewis' premier biographer, has written several books including the popular picture book, The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis with photography by Bob Brooks (1996). A retrospective exhibition of Maud's work sharing the same title was organized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 1997 that would later tour Canada. A full length documentary also named, The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis was produced by the National Film Board in 1998 with the script provided by Woolaver. He has also written two plays about Maud, A World Without Shadows (1996) and The Return of her Child. And is the writer of her full biography, The Heart at the Door (2016).
In 2019, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (MCAC) in Kleinburg, Ontario organized the touring exhibition: MAUD LEWIS. The exhibition in currently on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia until April 23, 2023. An art book entitled "Paintings for Sale" by Sarah Milroy, chief curator of the MCAC was published in conjunction with the exhibition. The book cover is an image of "PAINTINGS FOR SALE", the road sign that she painted and used outside her home. This book also served as the base and title for my painting.
On November 2, 2020, in time for the Holidays, Canada Post issued three stamps featuring her winter themed paintings from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia collection. All of the Christmas cards we mailed that year were adorned by these stamps.
In 2017, Mongrel Media and Sony Pictures Classic released Maudie. An award winning feature film of the life of Maud and Everett Lewis starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. The movie was directed by Aisling Walsh. This film introduced Maud Lewis a much wider audience outside Canada. Receiving generally positive reviews with an approval rating of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 151 reviews. Sally Hawkins gives an arresting performance as Maude. It won awards in all of the seven categories it was nominated for at the 2018 Canadian Screen Awards, including trophies for best actress, supporting actor, director, screenplay and best film. The film stimulated a resurgence and an interest in Lewis' work. It is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
While Maud Lewis was never really allowed to spend the money she made in order to make her life more comfortable, collectors of her work on the other hand have been racking in the rewards for having a keen eye for art at a bargain. I remember seeing a few of her paintings being resold in commercial galleries in Halifax for about $4000 to $5000 during the 1990's. On November 30, 2009, her painting "A Family Outing" sold for $22,000 CND at a Bonham's Auction in Toronto. A painting found in 2016 at an Ontario thrift store, "Portrait of Eddie Barnes and Ed Murphy, Lobster Fishermen" was sold in an online auction for $45,000 CND. Click HERE. In May of this year, a painting entitled "Black Truck" made national headlines as it was traded during the 1970's to restauranteurs in exchange of a grilled cheese sandwich by a Maud Lewis art collector, an Ontario artist named John Kinnear. The story goes that Kinnear and his wife had lunch at the restaurant every day. And every time he ordered the same grilled cheese sandwich. Kinnear also kept in touch with Maud Lewis, sending her proper art supplies and boards. The painting was expecting to fetch as much as $35,000 CND at auction. But when the hammer fell, it went for 10X as much, for $350,000 CND. Full story HERE and follow-up HERE.
I've always been an admirer of Maud Lewis' artwork but doing an homage painting only appeared on my radar as a result of the pandemic. While we were restricted to the Atlantic bubble for travels because of the Covid-19, my wife and I did a few road trips within the maritimes provinces. In mid-September 2020 we visited the western portion of Nova Scotia. Our itinerary took us to various sites that had a direct connection with Maud Lewis. The background painting that appears in my own painting was the featured image for the month of August in the Maud Lewis 2021 calendar. Growing up in Cap-Lumière, NB, I could relate with the image since our house was located one mile from a similar looking lighthouse. In the calendar, it is referred to as "Lighthouse and Steamer", while in the art book Paintings For Sale by Sarah Milroy, as Untitled (Digby Ferry Passing Point Prim Lighthouse), 1950's. This lighthouse was located 14 km from the Lewis' house.
The current Point Prim Lighthouse built in 1964
The original Point Prim Lighthouse dates back to 1817. It was destroyed
by fire in 1873. The lighthouse that appears in the Maud Lewis painting
replaced the original. It was equipped with an attached lighthouse keeper's
residence. It remained in operation until 1964 when it was demolished and
replaced by the current lighthouse.
When the province of Nova Scotia acquired the Painted House in
1984, it also purchased its' land in Marshalltown. In 1997, a
stainless steel framed structure was erected where the house once stood
and a memorial park was established on the remaining grounds.
This Painted House Replica was built by Ross Murray in 1999 on his
property. Located on Route 217, seven km from where the original house once stood.
Amazing to see so much attention to details. The property also
included a shed and a mailbox. Being there and able to enter the house
and walk around the grounds was like entering a movie set. Completely surreal!
Click HERE for backstory.
Photo op in Yarmouth, NS - Birthplace of Maud Lewis - September 2020
My decision to use a Campbell's Soup can as the centerpiece was inspired by the Bob Brooks photo. She used the can to wash her brushes with turpentine. The one shown in the picture taken in 1965 would have been of the same period as when Andy Warhol did his 32 Campbell's Soup Cans in 1962.
During the summer of 2020, we visited the Village Historique Acadien in Bertrand, NB. Among its' buildings is a replica of the original Nicholas D. Thériault General Store (1924). Almost every items inside are for sale for a few exceptions. The available inventory is meticulously curated by Mrs Lanteigne. While none are antiques, every items has a vintage flair. The top shelf had a display of can goods wrapped in vintage replica labels. When I spotted the vintage Campbell's Tomato Soup cans, my knees buckled. The label is probably pre 1930. When she told me that they weren't for sale, I was so disappointed but understood the situation. When we returned in 2021, I had forgotten about them, but upon seeing them again, my desire to acquire one was renewed. Fortunate for me, she remembered me and said she felt bad once I had exited the door. I had mentioned that I was a painter and wanted to incorporated one somehow in a painting. She kindly agreed to give me one, as long as I was willing to climb up the step ladder to get it. It was a fun moment and I was very thankful.
I could have used a very similar soup can as in the photo of Maud Lewis, but opted for the retro can to create a narrative that linked her earlier years while her mother taught her how to draw, paint and play the piano when she lived in South Ohio, located 11 km north of Yarmouth.
If you are still reading, hoping you enjoyed the ride!
This painting is currently on view in a group show entitled "Comfort and Joy" at the Fog Forest Gallery