Lewis was born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, on March 7th, 1901, to parents John and Agnes Dowley. Maud was first introduced to art by her mother, who encouraged her to paint Christmas cards to sell, thus beginning her art career. Lewis was born with congenital disabilities that would limit her mobility but also helped her create her unique artistic style.
Maud remained in her family home and the town of Yarmouth for the remainder of her early adult years. Her parents, however, passed in the late 1930s, thus changing the ownership of the family estate to her older brother Charles. However, after Charles’s failed marriage, the family home’s lease was released by her brother to Hawthorne Street. The instability led to Lewis moving in with her maternal aunt to the county of Digby, where she would live out the rest of her life. While living in Digby, Maud would paint the area’s rural landscape many times, as seen in her painting White House and Digby Gut, the 1960s.
Lewis’s stay with her maternal aunt was short-lived; in 1937, she responded to an advert put in the paper by her future husband Everett Lewis, a forty-four-year-old fish peddler. The couple was officially married on January 16th, 1938, and Maud moved into Everett’s one-story home. Their home was modest, and although Maud did not grow up in luxury, she was the daughter of a skilled blacksmith. She wasn’t expected to work as a child, which was a unique experience compared to her working-class neighbors.
Her marriage to Everett introduced her to a world of poverty she was not familiar with; and due to her rheumatoid arthritis, Maud could not do much of the manual labor that working-class families would do in rural Nova Scotia. Her condition was worsening, and she was barely able to keep up with basic house chores.
Everett began to work around the house, and she began to paint again to secure an income; these paintings would eventually lead her to fame. She began painting her home in a work now known as the Maud Lewis’s Painted House and is now on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Art for Sale
Lewis’s career would have likely remained a local phenomenon if not for a Halifax reporter named Cory Greenway, an early promoter of her work. In February of 1964, Greenway interviewed Lewis for a segment of the CBC Radio program Trans-Canada Matinee. The interview resulted in the immediate public interest and a subsequent interview in July 1965 with Murray Barnard, a freelance writer for the Star Weekly (Toronto).
Barnard was accompanied by a photojournalist Bob Brooks, whose photos of Lewis’s paintings and her house quickly became iconic. These photos were published in the Saturday edition of one of Canada’s most circulated newspapers, the Toronto Star, with the headline “The Little Old Lady Who Paints Pretty Pictures”. The article resulted in a rush of demand for Lewis’s work that never subsided, and she would receive countless letters from people requesting that she create paintings for them.
Folk Art Movement
One of Lewis’s defining achievements as an artist is that despite her never leaving her native province of Nova Scotia, her body of work has traveled the world and gained her fans universally. Her legacy, however, has bought about an appreciation and growth for what is known as Folk Art. Folk Art is the term used to describe work that an untrained artist creates.
Although this form of art wasn’t taken seriously by art critiques, by the 1970s, there was a growing movement in Nova Scotia that was in no small part fueled by Lewis’s recognition as an artist. Folk art was taken more seriously in the province and was housed in art galleries, such as the Nova Scotia Art Gallery.
Although one of Canada’s most beloved and well-known artists to date, Lewis, born in relative comfort and obscurity, died in poverty. Lewis’s life was adapted into plays, documentaries, a novel, and even a feature film in 2016 with the title Maudie. Yet despite her apparent marketability, very few of her pieces are housed at Canadian art museums, including the National Arts Gallery.
While Maud Lewis’s life was marked with challenges and difficulties, her story is one of perseverance and courage. Although she didn’t receive much institutional recognition, after her death, except for the Nova Scotia Art Gallery, her work continues to be the subject of interest almost half a decade after her passing, and her popularity continues to grow. In 2019 her work had a solo show at an art gallery in China and a major exhibition at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Ontario. The exhibition is currently touring and will be on display at the Art Gallery in Hamilton this November 2021, highlighting that Canadian audiences still love and appreciate Maud’s art.