Nova Scotia honours beloved folk artist Maud Lewis for Heritage Day
Published Sunday, February 17, 2019 2:53PM AST Last Updated Monday, February 18, 2019 1:06PM AST
Nova Scotians will honour folk artist Maud Lewis this week, whose colourful, lively paintings of rural life gained her national and international recognition towards the end of her life and in the decades after her death.
Lewis is this year's honouree for Heritage Day, a Nova Scotian holiday dedicated to recognizing a person, place or event that helped shape the province's history and identity.
Culture and Heritage Minister Leo Glavine said Lewis's works encapsulate what life was like in a rural Nova Scotian community in the early-to-mid 20th century.
"Maud Lewis has given us an incredible rich tapestry about what our province is about, in terms of its pastoral and rural settings, and its closeness -- surrounded, actually -- by the sea," he said. "In her folk artistry, she captured those basic elements of our province."
Her works largely feature sights she would have seen around her tiny home in Marshalltown, near Digby, N.S. Some feature landscapes: a snow-covered ground with oxen pulling sleds full of logs, or an idyllic coastal village with seagulls flying overhead.
Others feature animals more prominently -- like her famous painting "Three Black Cats," which sold for $36,800 at an auction in Toronto in 2017.
Her paintings may sell for tens of thousands of dollars these days, but it was a very different story during Lewis's life: some of her paintings originally sold for as little as $2 or $3.
In the 1960s, during the last few years of her life, Lewis began gaining more widespread attention, and two of her works were ordered by the White House during Richard Nixon's presidency.
She died in 1970, but her work has become more famous in recent years, bolstered in part by the 2016 biopic "Maudie," which generated fresh interest in her unique story.
While her vibrant and quirky compositions may evoke feelings of joy, Lewis's life was marred with poverty, health issues and poor treatment from her loved ones.
Born in rural Nova Scotia in 1903, Lewis lived most of her life in pain from rheumatoid arthritis, which snarled her hands, hunched her shoulders, and limited her ability to paint.
Lance Woolaver, an author and playwright whose works have largely focused on Lewis, said what made her remarkable was how she her persevered through these hardships and left behind a great wealth of works.
"Her story was not a happy one," said Woolaver.
"We tend to think of Maud Lewis as being a happy little elf in a wonderful, dreamlike, snow-white little house, but actually, she lived a life of abuse, and privation, and poverty, and I just find it incredible that she had the strength to keep going."
In "Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door," the first full-length biography of Lewis and her husband, a fish peddler named Everett, Woolaver argued that Everett had abusive tendencies, isolating his wife from people and keeping her on a painting schedule to make money from her.
Woolaver said he's happy that Lewis will be honoured for Heritage Day, and hopes that further education and awareness of her story will help shed some light on the darker parts of her life, behind the cheerful facade of her paintings.
"Many of the problems that Maud Lewis went through, incuding spousal abuse and poverty, are still with us. I don't think that we've ever solved problems like that, we have to deal with them all the time through every generation," he said.
"So I think that if the true story is more known, the better it is for us and our future generations."
In addition to her paintings, there is another surviving relic of her artwork: the tiny house she lived in, which she famously adorned with colourful paintings of flowers and wildlife.
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is home to the largest public collection of Maud Lewis works in the world, including the house.