When then President Richard Nixon commissioned two paintings from Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis she agreed provided that he pay in advance. Ms Lewis didn’t know who he was. Which is not surprising since her world existed within a sixty-mile radius of her home near Digby, Nova Scotia. It was a world without indoor plumbing, running water or electricity.
It was also a world without influence from other painters. She never took art lessons. She was intuitive – confidently and consistently painting the world as she saw it. “Just guessing my work up,” was how she described it. Her playful scenes of birds, butterflies, daisies, wide-eyed oxen, cats and horse-drawn sleighs sparkle with joy. Her paintings, in the words of one art gallery owner, contained, “No shadows at all.”
There were shadows in her personal life, however.
She lived in a tiny (12 by 13) one-room cabin with Everett her cantankerous husband. So tiny it now sits entirely inside a room at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. They were poor. The debilitating effects of childhood rheumatoid arthritis increased as she got older. It became harder and harder for her to walk and to grasp her paintbrush. She was in constant and worsening pain. Lance Woolaver the author of a book and a play about her, discovered a mound of aspirin bottles buried in the backyard of her house after she died.
We tend to romanticize the suffering and struggles of artists once they become famous. Their ultimate triumph becomes proof that you can overcome anything if you simply follow your dream. The more word spreads about Maud Lewis the more her life is being modified to justify this view.
The most recent interpretation of her life is the movie Maudie starring academy award nominee Sally Hawkins as Maud and Ethan Hawke as her husband. It’s an interpretation I accept for one important reason. There aren’t enough well-known women artists and this movie should ensure that Maud Lewis sits up there with Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe. Hawkins’ performance is convincing. She captures the same spirit and confident smile that Maud revealed in these two short documentaries, one by the CBC and the other by the National Film Board.
Her portrayal of Maud’s determination to paint reminds me of many artists that I know. Her perseverance, despite pain, and physical limitations is no different than those who live in similar circumstances. She paints because that is what painters do. And she painted on everything including the walls, shelves, stairs, windows, breadbox and woodstove in her home.
There is a mystery at the heart of Maud Lewis’ life. Do we create because we are loved or because we are unloved? Maudie will give you an opportunity to consider your answer. An opportunity you won’t regret.
Maud Lewis died in 1970 and was buried in a pauper’s grave. The most any of her paintings sold for when she was alive was $10.00. The on-line bidding for one of her recently discovered paintings tops $125,000.00.
As long as there’s a brush in front of me, I’m alright. (Maud Lewis)