It’s possible that—even knowing her posthumous story of rags to riches—not everyone belongs to Maud Lewis’s fan club. Some may be late or resist joining, jaded by her work’s “iconic” familiarity. But few can disagree it’s sad the artist didn’t live to reap the rewards of her popularity. If she had, she’d laugh her way to the bank. Not bad for someone who said, “I ain’t an artist, I just like to paint.” An artist whose work was once scorned because it was made to sell.
Prejudices aside, in these dark days Lewis’s crowd-pleasing appeal—“the Maud effect,” one curator calls it—just keeps growing, along with her work’s market value. The artist’s acceptance into the McMichael Canadian Art Collection’s pantheon hasn’t hurt. Since opening in Kleinburg in 2019, the McMichael’s travelling exhibition, Maud Lewis, curated by Sarah Milroy, has no doubt doubled—tripled?—Maud’s fan base. It will likely continue to do so during its final “homecoming” stop at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, Maud-land’s Mecca.
Clearly, what the world—and a growing number of gallery-goers—needs now, wants now, is Maud, more Maud: her uplifting scenes from an imaginary, angst-free world where benevolence reigns. Among diehard fans and new converts alike, her pictures don’t fail to draw smiles. Yet their happy vibe, their ubiquitous association with a Nova Scotia that never existed, their pigeon-holing as folk art have all made it difficult to consider Lewis’s oeuvre with an unbiased eye.
For those bent on realism and art that beatifies angst as truth, it may be especially hard to resist an unbiased view. Once called “the Prozac of Canadian Art” (by a 20th century American painter whose style is an uninspiring mash up of Maud’s and Matisse’s), despite or maybe because of its accessibility, Maud’s work has long been denied the critical discussion such well-known work is due. Odd, because her paintings testify not only to her imagination’s transformative power—the gift of finding grace and joy in the ordinary and transmitting it—but to a startling gift for colour and composition. Her dazzling use of colour, her early palette particularly remarkable in what curators call its tonal integrity, as well as her graphic use of lines and simple forms humbly and perfectly complement her vision, and in a seemingly effortless way summon equal feelings of grace and joy in viewers. Viewers willing to look.
To fully appreciate Lewis’s art takes what AGNS interim director Sarah Moore Fillmore calls “respectful” looking. Having curated the 2017 show, Maud Lewis As Collected by John Risley and Maud Lewis and the Nova Scotia Terroir, an exhibition featuring Maud’s work along with that of six contemporary Nova Scotian artists that toured China in 2019-20, she hopes the McMichael show will change “conversations around Maud” and lead to her work’s examination “with some degree of criticality.”
The McMichael’s placing Lewis on par with the Group of Seven should help. For now, its exhibition allows Maud’s paintings to speak eloquently for themselves, displaying the work with a minimum of commentary. Grouping it simply according to theme—By the Seaside, Creatures Great and Small, and From Here to There—the installation highlights the diversity of Maud’s art as it evolved through her early, mid- and late career. The Halifax display includes 97 paintings, mostly oil on board, eight large panels, and ten of the now-rare Christmas cards she created in the 1940s—her earliest bread-and-butter work nurtured by her mother during Maud’s youth in Yarmouth, N.S. The paintings’ eye-popping range and variety, even given the inclusion of those with repeated subject matter (her customers’ favourites), sheds a whole new light on Lewis’s lifelong practice and her remarkable devotion.
There’s a reason why patrons were particularly enamoured of her most popular subjects: fluffy black and white cats surrounded by blossoms and yoked oxen depicted in various seasons. The cats with their round, staring eyes conjure the very inscrutability that cat-lovers love and cat-haters hate. The oxen evoke brute strength and docility, an unspoken poignancy in the fact that they’re yoked throughout the year, their only freedom in being no longer useful and, well, slaughtered. Created throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the oxen paintings offer a window into Maud’s developing minimalism, the mature style that saw the gradual stripping out and simplification of contextual details as her rheumatoid arthritis took an increasing toll and her physical condition deteriorated. In the example painted two years before her death in 1970, the lines have lost some of their crispness. Yet, despite her declining abilities the imagery retains the humble largesse that is Lewis’s legacy.
Indeed, a spirit of largesse infuses the exhibition, its surprising scope owing much to the works’ private collectors, who include Risley. Absent, but not conspicuously so, is Black Truck (1967), the painting once traded for grilled cheese sandwiches by its owner, the artist John Kinnear who befriended Maud, and was auctioned last May for $350,000. It’s not exactly missed; innumerable standouts offer what’s arguably a greater visual appeal. Among these are Harbour Scene (from the 1940s or early 50s), a composition whose draw is magnetic—a glory of cerulean sky funneling the eye to a serene sea and the prows of boats at anchor, its palette and angular forms creating a mesmerizing effect—and the ceaselessly charming Cow and Daisies, painted in the early 1950s. Its palette is redolent with the warmth of sunshine and myriad tiny flowers, their delicate rendering recalling pointillism. Along with the bespoke cow, the dreamy summer scene includes fluffy pink flowering spruce and trees with autumn’s yellow and orange foliage.
For here’s the thing: Maud never let flat-earth thinking or reality’s constraints mess with a good picture or her aesthetic instincts, her determined ability to let the imagination shine. Though her materials were guided, dictated, by poverty and, as she aged, her style by illness and worsening physical disability, her medium and approach suited and served her vision to jubilant effect. And despite the many limitations she faced, she did not shy from experimentation but embraced it, as shown by her painted house and the decorated objects within, the centrepiece of the AGNS’s permanent Scotiabank Maud Lewis collection. Nothing was off-limits to her creativity; not even the homeliest household items were left untransformed. Each surface emanates a palpable delight, good will and humour, conveyed by the artist’s obvious concern for her works’ visual effects.
The world she presents in all her paintings is metaphysical, far above and beyond her surroundings’ locales and their nostalgic antecedents. Its essence is the ineffable, conjured by colour and composition. Even in her repeated renderings of those animals, this spirit illuminates each image. It was there from the beginning, in her early illustrative work inspired by magazine covers and postcards, and persisted through to what must be one of her final works, Oxen In Winter (1968). Her art’s essence transcends the artist and her biography, although undeniably her life’s grim facts produced the style that captures its spirit and makes her work singular. As Moore Fillmore says, “We need to think about Maud as an artist, whose creativity bursts through a story of resilience.”
As former Maud curator and editor Ray Cronin, author of two recent books on Lewis, notes, the artist herself is now a fiction. No doubt the more widely her work travels and, in time, her legend starts to dissipate, the more her work will be considered and valued on its own terms, possibly apart from her biography’s cachet.
But, ultimately, what enables art, great and otherwise, to transcend its maker? Think of Picasso’s abiding joy in creativity for its own sake, a practice death ended but whose spirit survives. Didn’t Maud share this impulse? Think of Matisse, who, like her, revelled in colour and trusted viewers to imagine the unseen that’s indelibly there. Maud’s inclusion last winter in A Century of the Artist’s Studio at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, U.K. placed her in the company of both these greats and a slew of others spanning the 20th century, including Egon Schiele, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, and Louise Bourgeois, artists revered for their singular vision and style. Possessing both, Maud is clearly kin. Not at all shabby for “The Little Old Lady Who Paints Pretty Pictures,” as the Star Weekly first pitched her to the world beyond Nova Scotia, back in 1965. For someone who never left Dodge, she sure gets around.
And why? Because her way of seeing is an example to all, reminding us of the wonder of small things, the enduring beauty of sea, sky, flora and fauna, but more than this, an undying spirit of possibility. The very spirit that lets us envision a world kinder than the one we inhabit, and not just envision but step into, if only for a little while.