Despite being a national heroine, Maud Lewis has long been on the margins of the Canadian art world
Her signature folk art style has frequently been overlooked and dismissed as non-serious
This excerpt is adapted from Maud Lewis: Life & Work, the latest edition in the Art Canada Institute's Canadian Online Art Book Project.
Maud Lewis is one of the most beloved of Canadian artists: well-known in her lifetime and even more celebrated since her death. Her enduring popularity has been reflected in documentaries and books, in an acclaimed feature film, Maudie (2016), and in the play A World Without Shadows (Lance Woolaver, 2016). More recently, in 2020, a series of postage stamps featuring her work was issued by Canada Post. Yet notwithstanding Lewis's fame, her paintings have not been collected by many key Canadian museums, including the National Gallery of Canada.
When it comes to exhibitions, she has often been overlooked, dismissed as having created "folk art" rather than serious visual art. Her story reflects both the biases of the art world, and the compelling power of a rich and colourful body of work.
Lewis's life was bounded by the distance between two of southwestern Nova Scotia's major towns. Born in Yarmouth in 1901, she moved to Marshalltown in 1937, where she married Everett Lewis, a fish peddler whom she met when he posted an ad looking for a woman to "live-in or keep house." The marriage introduced her to a world of poverty she had never known. To improve the couple's finances, Lewis soon developed her own business, creating greeting cards and then paintings that she sold from their small home.
She also painted the interior of the house, covering it in brightly coloured flowers and birds. In her art, Lewis presented a cheerful, sentimental look back at the rural past of her part of Nova Scotia. In her painted world, life can seem to be one long succession of sleigh and carriage rides, blossoming fruit trees, sailing on calm waters, and just enough honest work to keep active — woodcutting, fishing, farming. She devised a unique and immediately recognizable style, in part because she suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a painful and progressive disease that impacted how she held a brush.
Lewis's painting career would likely have remained a mostly local phenomenon but for Halifax freelance journalist Cora Greenaway, who produced an interview with her for the CBC Radio program Trans-Canada Matinee that aired in February 1964. It sparked public interest, and in July 1965 the Star Weekly (Toronto) sent freelance writer Murray Barnard from Halifax to write about Lewis; the subsequent feature created an enormous amount of curiosity, as its headline read, "The Little Old Lady Who Paints Pretty Pictures." That same year, Maud and Everett were visited by a camera crew from the CBC Television program Telescope. Following this national attention, many people wrote to Lewis requesting paintings, creating a rush on her work that never abated.
With her popular success, Lewis was the forerunner of an explosion in what became known as "Nova Scotia folk art." Folk art — or art made by untrained artists — is by no means confined to Nova Scotia, and traditionally it has meant decorative objects made by people for their own use. For many decades, it was usually found in history museums rather than art galleries. Most of this country's art institutions continue to exclude folk art from their collecting mandates, identifying it as a craft rather than an art. But beginning in the 1970s, a burgeoning movement developed in Nova Scotia that was unique. Fuelled in no small part by the recognition won by Lewis as an artist, folk art began to be taken seriously in the province and found a new home in art galleries such as the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Lewis was among the first Canadian folk artists to engage directly with the art market. Her paintings were produced not for herself, but for sale, making her distinctly different from the untrained artisan rug hookers who made floor coverings for their cold houses, or carvers who decorated the yokes that their oxen wore when plowing their fields. In Nova Scotia, before Lewis, collectors found folk art in the homes and barns of rural villages, and it was the act of collecting that turned a tool, a blanket, a weather vane, or some other utilitarian piece into "art." Though in interviews she resisted the designation of artist, Lewis was making objects that were obviously art: painted scenes — including kittens, cows, seascapes, and country panoramas — offered for sale. In doing so, she changed the folk art dynamic. Those who followed in her footsteps — including Joe Norris (1924–1996), Collins Eisenhauer (1898–1979), and Ralph Boutilier (1906–1989), all untrained artists — made work that was intended to be displayed.
With the surge in popularity of folk art, Nova Scotia's most enduring artistic exports became works produced outside of its major centre, Halifax. That city may be the economic engine of the province, but it was the folk art created in Lunenburg and Digby Counties that caught the general public's attention. Nova Scotia folk art has become a style in its own right, with an annual exhibition in Lunenburg — the Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival — that has been running since 1989.
Following her death in 1970, there was little institutional interest in Lewis's art, except from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The Canadian Museum of History actively collected Nova Scotia folk art in the 1970s, but it has only a few paintings by Lewis. The National Gallery of Canada has none. Not until 1997 was Lewis the subject of a touring museum exhibition, organized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Just over two decades later, the enduring popularity of her work prompted a show of her art in China, organized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2019. A major solo exhibition that same year at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Ontario, the gallery often thought of as a monument to the Group of Seven, was tremendously popular. The exhibition is touring and will open at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in November, underscoring how the art-world status of Lewis's work continues to be reconsidered a half-century after her death. More importantly, it highlights how Canadian audiences continue to love Maud Lewis's work.