As a little girl in South Ohio, Nova Scotia, Maud Dowley suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which kept her small, with almost no chin and other physical differences. She spent her childhood at home with her parents and brother, and when her mother encouraged her to make hand-painted Christmas cards, Maud found that she could fashion a world of her own and depict the abundance of rural life.
When Maud was 32, her father died, and two years later her mother followed. Typical to the era, Maud’s brother inherited the family home and Maud soon went to live with her aunt. Needing money, she answered an ad for a housekeeper, which had been posted in the general store by a gruff, itinerant fish seller named Everett Lewis. Soon, Everett and Maud were married and she moved into his 10 x 12 foot, one-room cottage in nearby Marshalltown.
Maud accompanied Everett on his fish routes and sometimes brought her Christmas cards, which she sold to Everett’s customers for 25 cents each. Before long, her arthritis prevented her from performing any housework, but she developed a small reputation for her paintings: cheerful scenes from childhood that included cats and deer, horses pulling sleigh, oxen, the houses and farms of South Ohio and Digby County, gardens and the seaside, painted on beaverboard panels and using sardine tins as paint pots. Everett bought for Maud her first set of artist’s oils and brushes and she painted every surface of their little house including the windows, stairs, doors and the woodstove with cloudless skies and primary-coloured flowers, birds and butterflies.
By 1945, people had begun stopping at Everett and Maud’s house, which sat on the edge of Highway 1 with a roadside sign that read, “Paintings for sale.” Along this main tourist route through Western Nova Scotia, one of Maud’s 8 x 10 paintings, still wet, could be bought for two or three dollars. With no indoor plumbing or electricity, she painted contentedly from her memories and imagination, “guessing her work up,” as she called it. In 1964, a Toronto newspaper drew national attention to her art making, and a year later she was featured on TV. By now, almost completely crippled in her hands and neck, constrained to the chair and painting table in the corner of her house and having received a commission for paintings by the new U.S president Richard Nixon, Maud Lewis bumped up her prices to five dollars. She passed away in 1970 at the age of 67.
PS: “As long as I’ve got a brush in front of me, I’m alright.” (Maud Lewis)
“I imagine and paint from memory. I don’t copy much…just have to guess my work up.” (Maud Lewis)
Esoterica: This spring, screenwriter Sherry White and director Aisling Walsh’s biopic Maudie was released after receiving critical acclaim at international film festivals. Adding colour and continuation to the enduring myth of Maud, the film illuminates the optimism, determination and hardship endured by an underdog who persevered with her singular vision and creativity. Maud and Everett’s epic house, sold to the province of Nova Scotia in 1984 and turned over to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia for preservation, is now on permanent display, along with her work. Recently, one of Maud’s paintings was discovered in the donation bin of the Mennonite Central Committee Thrift Store in New Hamburg, Ontario. A volunteer recognized the value and had it appraised for $16,000.00. The painting was subsequently put to auction online, where it’s currently hovering at $125,208.00. The auction runs until May 19, 2017. “We continue to find joy in the fact that a woman who lived a very spartan life, really on the edge of poverty in many ways, now her work, this particular piece at least, is going to make quite a contribution to MCC’s work, which at its core is all about alleviating poverty, whether it’s caused by war or other kinds of conditions.” (Rick Cober Bauman, director of MCC Ontario)
“I love a window, a bird whizzing by, it’s always different, the whole of life already framed right there.” (Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in Maudie)