A painter’s myth

34

Dear Artist,

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.

maud-lewis_three-black-cats

“Three Black Cats”
painting by Maud Lewis (1903-1970)

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.

maud-lewis_horses-hauling-logs-in-winter

“Horses Hauling Logs in Winter”
painting by Maud Lewis

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.

maud-lewis_untitled-discovered

Donation bin painting: Portrait of Eddie Barnes and Ed Murphy, Lobster Fishermen, Bay View, N.S. (painted on beaverboard)

Sincerely,

Sara

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)

1965 TV show — Maudie trailer

maud-lewis_city-dwellers

Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“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)

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34 Comments

  1. I did so much enjoy this touching story of Maud. With so much adversity, she made a life and found a way to use her gift of art through her memories. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Marsha McDonald on

    This is “bittersweet” to me? I have enjoyed reading it. Here are my thoughts. I’m so glad Maud was able to paint, and get the recognition she did. But once again, it also shows the true disdain many people have for rewarding and paying an artist properly for the work they do, while they are alive! I hope she is at least where she can look down and see how valued and appreciated some of her work is now.

    • Alexandra Vance on

      Thank you for this encouraging biography. I am inspired by Mauds need to hold a brush and paint. No matter what the hardship the internal drive to paint doesn’t change. Beautiful

  3. What an amazing woman. Thank you for sharing her life and her indomitable spirit. She reminds me to be grateful for every breath I take, and every brushstroke I make.

  4. Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke play the roles of Maud and her husband in the film Maudie. The director explained that he was framing the film as a love story, which may or may not be true. It was said that her husband was a miser who collected the money for her paintings, stuffed it into a jar, and buried the jars around their property. It has also been said that Maudie gave birth to a daughter when she herself was a teenager. She was never permitted to see her child, who was put up for adoption and the matter conveniently “swept under the rug”. Only by accident did she find out that her daughter was alive and well, and living close by.

    Her work is all the more amazing in both its joyfulness and the accuracy of her visual memory. Her spirit, it seems, was truly unquenchable. The casting of Sally Hawkins to play Maudie was a stroke of genius!

    • What an amazing story all around! It touched my soul and brought tears to my eyes. Thank-you Sara. And wow, thank-you Jill for providing even more background on Maudie. My ‘need to know’ (and being adopted myself) makes me ever so curious as to the dynamics of a crippled isolated teenaged girl becoming pregnant; who was the father, was she raped, and where is this daughter now? Indeed, it seems that there is always a story behind the story, an elephant in the room……
      Hats off to Maudie. I hope to be able to see this film…
      Verna

  5. This is bittersweet….at the same time I feel glad for her that she had something that helped get thru her daily challenges, something to look forward to doing. Makes one become quiet to think about it.

    • That’s what I was thinking. Not myth but mastery – of her conditions. I think I’ve seen pictures of that house. I’m learning to work within the limitations of my own disability also. She’s an inspiration – like Frida Kahlo was.

    • Actually, a myth can be true, or have elements of truth…a myth isn’t always false. In this case, who knows? The point is, we can take lessons from how the story is portrayed, and use them to inspire us.

  6. Doreen Shann on

    What a sweet story. Her paintings are so charming and wonderful. How great that she had her art to
    escape to. I always find it rather sad that only after death do some artists work become priceless. I hope
    Maude is looking down and realizing just how special she and her art were.

  7. Oh Maude ❤️ ! Inspiring story. I hope she got to meet her daughter. Can’t wait to see the movie and would love a book about her life.

    • Anna Houston on

      There is a book about her life called Maud Lewis the Heart on the Door by Lance Gerard Woolaver. I recently saw the movie Maudie, and found it well acted and inspiring. This book is apparently dark and less romanticized than the movie. I haven’t read it and have no desire to, based on the reviews.

  8. Denise Jenkins on

    thank you for writing this one up. I am deeply moved by this woman and her work. Last summer I was in Nova Scotia fiddling away and how I wish I had known I could have seen her house! Next time I am up that way I will swing by to stare at the work of such a pure spirit

  9. Jean Belluz on

    Thank you for this wonderful story. I’m glad she was finally recognized for her work although most of the recognition was after she passed away. She would be overwhelmed I’m sure.

  10. Gordon Lyman on

    The comments suggest that so many people are touched by this inspiring, uplifting story. No wonder as to why! Thank you, Sara. You make this blog a treasure.

  11. Gail McDougall on

    Saw the movie and loved it. Maudie was a wonderful person. Her paintings were so cheerful. Her life was not easy but she focussed on bright colors and happy scenes. Sally Hawkins was an excellent choice for the role of Maudie.

  12. Lynn Nickols on

    Despite her circumstances, she somehow maintained her sense of humour. That last painting made me laugh as we too have experienced being blocked off by cattle.
    Lynn Nickols

  13. Beautiful story! I have a very dear friend just like but we make artistic puzzles together which help loosen my finger up for my own drawings & paintings but I have MS w/ a touch of Arthritis . I will post my photos of us tonight!

  14. Thank you, for posting this uplifting story of courage and sentiment. I introduced Maud Lewis to the Grade 9’s and 10’s while teaching art a few years ago and challenged them to create a painting from memory or experience. There were more parts to the criteria as well, however, many chose Maud’s similar approach of using the primary colours and simple shapes. They were able to see the relevance of working from memory and how leaving out pertinent details allowed for its own expression in the art piece. Maud Lewis’s paintings were her joy in life. Highlighting Maud Lewis in a Film Festival movie is truly a wonderful way to show her struggles in life and also the beauty she was able to create in her own world. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie. Thanks, Sara, for highlighting Maud Lewis. She is a gem and I hope to meet her someday on the other side.

  15. Great and timely letter, Sara. Being a New Brunswicker I am always buoyed up ( no pun intended) with art works that show the East coast. The story and the painting of the lobster boat rounding the cape is stirring those early ties to the land. This is what successful art always does, no matter what style, it emotionally connects to the viewer, helping the artist close the dialogue.

  16. An inspiring story of an amazing woman. My heart cried to learn of her life. I am humbled by her courage to live her vision despite of her physical conditions. Thank You Sara, for introducing this artist to us. Her paintings are beautiful!

  17. Charles Eisener on

    Maude’s home is now inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, in Halifax., surrounded by a number of her works.
    I stopped by her home at the request of an art teacher in Ontario, purchasing several of her pieces. She was a remarkably sweet lady whose face expressed an honest and deep joy to those who stopped by, even if simply to visit.
    Within less than a year, Maude was gone, making me wish I had lived closer and been able to take even more of her enthusiasm home to share with others. The people and experiences we take for granted when they are in the present . . . .

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http://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Zidonja_Magnolia-Joy-wpcf_300x217.jpgMagnolia Joy
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I am a self taught artist, I work in oil, Acrylic and watercolour also in Pastels. Started painting In Ashcroft with Mr. Campbell. I taught my self how to paint by studying professional artists’ work through reading, TV programs, educational DVD and work shops.
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