CANADA

Halifax, NS

Maud Lewis House Keeps Alive Art of Woman Now a Hollywood Star

Interior of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis’s tiny home

Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis lived and painted in this tiny 3-by-3 1/2-metre house. After her death in 1970 it was acquired by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and reassembled in its own gallery in Halifax. It was her biggest artwork: she painted almost every surface: walls, cupboards, windowpanes and the woodstove.

IN A ROOM in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is a tiny, shake-shingle house. Outside, it’s conventionally painted, white with green trim. But inside its door and walls are covered with brightly coloured artworks.

The painter was Maud Lewis (née Dowley, 1903-1970), a folk artist whose international reputation took a huge leap up in the fall of 2016 when a film based on her life, Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, was shown first at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival and then at the opening-night gala of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

It’s probably fair to say that Lewis would have been gob-smacked to find her life story taken up by Hollywood. She was born with major physical challenges: severe scoliosis and crippling rheumatoid arthritis that deformed her fingers. These, and her diminutive, elf-like size, made her an easy target of mockery by other children.

After the death of her doting parents when she was in her 30s, she went to live with an aunt in Digby, 230 kilometres by road west of Halifax on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, and answered an ad for a housekeeper placed by Everett Lewis, who lived in nearby Marshalltown.

Lewis was a part-time fisherman/peddler and jack-of-all trades whose home was a 3-by-3 1/2-metre roadside shack that lacked plumbing and electricity. His strained circumstances were bottle-induced. Discovering that Maud could paint, he peddled her works as a way to supplement the household income and supply his drink.

(Local cynics said he married her as a way to avoid paying her for her housekeeping. Ironically, he ended up doing all the housework so she could paint.)

Maud’s earliest works were Christmas cards, and even later in her career, when she had branched out, her works were still small: most no larger than a sheet of writing paper.

Today, her hand-painted $2 cards and $5 paintings command thousands of dollars. Among Maud’s early fans were U.S. president Richard Nixon, who ordered two of her works for the White House, and Nova Scotia’s premier from 1956 to 1967, Robert Stanfield.

Maud used marine or house paints—whatever Everett brought back—on particleboard and cardboard. Her art depicts a boldly colourful world of happy people and animals; a world of movement, of horse-drawn wagons and children at play. In spite of her life, there is no time for darkness in her work.

Painting was Maud’s passion and her escape. When not producing something for sale she made her tiny house her biggest canvas, painting almost every surface of it and in it, from cupboards to windowpanes, the door and the woodstove, right down to the dustpan.

The house was left to deteriorate after Everett died in 1979, until a society was formed to raise funds to save the landmark. It took until 1996 for the restoration of Maud’s home to begin. Dismantled, moved and reconstructed in its own gallery in the Art Galley of Nova Scotia, it is one of the most unusual—and moving—art pieces in Canada.

 

ACCESS

For more information on the Maud Lewis house in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax visit the gallery’s website at www.artgalleryofnovascotia.ca.

For information on travel in Nova Scotia visit the Tourism Nova Scotia website at www.novascotia.com.