Maud Lewis, 1903 — 1970

© Bob Brooks, courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Expressing Joy

It is impossible not to marvel at Maud Lewis. The tiny woman with a bent frame and crippled fingers only once travelled more than an hour's drive from the place of her birth in South Ohio (Yarmouth County). Her family — the Dowleys — was poor but loving. Yet as a child, Maud endured cruel teasing at school for her small size and disfigurement. She stopped going at fourteen.

After her parents died in the mid-1930s, Maud made her own way in the world. One day she walked six miles to answer an advertisement for a housekeeper in Marshalltown (near Digby), an ad posted by fish peddler Everett Lewis. The two married a few weeks later.

From then on Maud and Everett Lewis lived with little income in the tiniest of houses with no indoor plumbing and no electricity. Each did what she or he could to bring in money. In Maud’s case, that was art. Initially, it was Christmas cards, sold for a nickel. Then she moved on to painting on cardboard and reclaimed strips of wood. The prices were never high.

Maud had no formal training, but that hardly mattered. She had a natural talent and a distinctive perspective on life and the world around her. "As long as I've got a brush in front of me," Maud once said, "I'm all right." Despite the hardships of her life, she depicted scenes of a re-imagined childhood or her current situation. With their bright colours, the paintings radiate joy.

Maud Lewis died in 1970, but her art lives on. Many of her paintings, and even her entire painted house — with bright colours and scenes on the door, stairs, bread boxes, walls, stove and window glass — are on display in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.