Maud Lewis was one of Canada’s most renowned folk artists. She was known for her brightly coloured paintings and greeting cards. She was born on March 7, 1903, in the small town of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada, where she lived with her parents, John and Agnes Dowley, and brother Charles.
Maud Lewis was born with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that showed markedly sloping shoulders, a curved spine, and an acutely recessed chin. The disease left a lasting impact on not just her physical appearance but also her mental health. Maud would often choose to stay indoors to avoid being bullied by other kids for the way she looked. She studied in a one-room classroom in South Ohio and completed her fifth grade at the age of fourteen; her deteriorating health made her drop out of school soon after.
Agnes Dowley was supportive of her daughter’s artistic abilities and encouraged her to draw, paint and play the piano. Maud, like most other middle-class girls her age, was also urged to sew, embroider and crochet. Her first encounter with art was when she painted Christmas cards with her mother and sold them for 25 cents each. She married Everett Lewis, a fish peddler. They lived most of their married life in poverty in a small one-room cabin.
Neither did Maud Lewis go to an art school, nor did she ever get any formal art training. She first started making Christmas cards with crayons and later moved on to oil paints. Since canvas was expensive and hard to come by, Maud painted on beaver boards, particle boards, and Masonite.
Her paintings are flat, colourful and most have elements from nature and landscape from around the places Maud has either visited or lived in. Since she did not travel much due to her health, most of her paintings have similar, repetitive motifs and distinctive elements. Maud’s paintings are full of this childlike joy with bright sunshine, vibrant flowers, horses with carts, black and white cats, cows, oxen carrying logs, ships, and boats on a port; quite contrary to how grueling her life was.
She painted animals, townsfolk running errands, landscapes in various seasons, and sometimes, her husband, Everett Lewis, as well. She also began painting the tiny cabin where they lived, including the walls, doors, windows, kettles, and even the stove was painstakingly well painted with butterflies, tulips, vines, swans, and the likes!
After both their deaths, the house started to fall apart and was moved to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, where it was restored and opened for the masses to view and experience; it was later called ‘Maud Lewis’s painted house’.
Maud’s disease, as well as her cramped surroundings, made it difficult for her to continue painting, but she persisted. Her hands would often ball up into tight fists, making it tough to even hold a brush, but she continued. Her usual painting spot required her to hunch over a small table and paint, which made her back stiff; yet she never stopped painting. Even during her time at the hospital, she would often make cards for the nurses.
It seems incredible where she drew that kind of strength from. Despite the fact that her arthritis is a progressive and degenerative disease, Maud continued to paint, and her paintings do not show even a glimpse of the difficult life she had. Her art was her triumph over her physical disabilities and poverty, and her resilience despite hardships is commendable.
- Ray Cronin. Maud Lewis Life and Work by Ray Cronin. [online]. Available at: https://www.aci-iac.ca/art-books/maud-lewis/biography/ [Accessed date: 16 March 2022].
- Susan Stamberg (2017). Home Is Where The Art Is: The Unlikely Story Of Folk Artist Maud Lewis. [online]. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2017/06/19/532816482/home-is-where-the-art-is-the-unlikely-story-of-folk-artist-maud-lewis [Accessed date: 17 March 2022]