In 2017, one of her paintings was found in a New Hamburg, Ontario thrift store bin. It was then appraised, exhibited and auctioned off for $45,000. Much like that painting, Maud Lewis – now one of Canada’s treasured outsider folk artists – lived a long life of being undervalued and abandoned before she was prized and cherished as a national icon.
A little one-room shack with bright flowers painted on every wall, door and window has been a national folk-art treasure for decades in Canada. The whimsy and innocence of Nova Scotian Maud Lewis’ outsider art and the home she painted by hand seems to reflect an idyllic and charmed life.
Museums say she was a woman who lived in poverty but had a life rich with simple cheer and romance. Hers is a story of joy in the face of adversities, they say. A “triumph of the human spirit,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia as it refers to a 1997 MacLeans article quoting a director of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
The popular Maud Lewis narrative, led mainly by corporations and art galleries who have profited from romanticizing her story, says that she may have had arthritis and a slight hobble but she chose to produce colourful paintings fuelled by her passion and inherent childlike wonder.
She painted daisies, cats, horses, trees, tulips and cows often with a makeshift TV tray easel. Maud used oil paint straight from the tube – no mixing shades. Her artwork has, for the most part, no shading or shadows.
But her life was not that quaint, simple or colourful. In her three dimensional life there were certainly shadows and ones she could not easily escape. Poverty. Quite crippling deformities. Trauma. Physical pain. Family abuse. Isolation. Mysogyny. Her mistreatment and exploitation by her husband. And likely his financial abuse via her art.
While there is a darker side to the Maud Lewis story which has been sanitized for museums, tourism and a recent movie (Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke), it does not dull her narrative or take away from the importance of her art in the context of Canadian history. If anything, the truer, darker details of her life, as gritty and painful as they are, bring complexity and deeper meaning to her art. It makes Maud the artist more real and relatable – a truer Canadian icon. These shadows make her work all the more powerful.
Lewis was born Maud Dowley in South Ohio, Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia in 1903. She spent her whole life living within an hour of that region, spending most of the last 30 years living in one of just three houses in the impoverished Marshalltown.
Dowley was born with several birth defects and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. By the time she was an adult, she was still child-size in stature, her shoulders were hunched, her chin was pressed into her chest and her fingers were deformed. But that didn’t stop her from painting – even in her youth.
It was her mother who had introduced her to painting as a child. They would paint Christmas cards together and sell them door to door for five cents a piece.
Her childhood seemed nice enough. Her mother taught her to play piano. The family was not poor. But when Maud’s parents died and her brother Charles received the inheritance which included the family home, he did not make a provision for his only sibling. He sent her to live with a relative and never spoke to her again. Maud’s life took a turn for the tragic. She lived temporarily with an aunt who was cruel to her. Around that time, she had a child out of wedlock with a man she loved.
In the 30s, any pregnant women who were not married in the region would be sent in shame to a rural hospital to give birth in secrecy. By then the father had abandoned her so Maud had to give the child up for adoption. She would never get the chance to meet her daughter even though the child tried to look her up years later. Nearly homeless and almost a resident of the Poor Farm, Maud needed an escape.
It was Everett Lewis, who encouraged – or forced – Maud’s painting during her later adult years, according to Lance Woolaver, an author and playwright who focuses on the life of Maud Lewis. The couple met in 1938, after her daughter was born and taken for adoption.
According to Everett’s account (as well as museum and encyclopedia narratives), Maud responded to an ad she saw posted at a grocery store about a man looking for a live-in housekeeper. She walked all the way from her aunt’s house in Digby to meet him at his shack.
Other people from the region at the time have their own theories about the likelihood of that.
Regardless of how she met Everett, a gaunt and illiterate fish peddler and night watchman at the Poor Farm she had almost moved into, Maud met him and moved in and instead of being a housekeeper, she became a wife. And instead of moving to the poor house, she took residence in his tiny one-room shack with no running water or electricity, no bathroom or telephone. Everett held the keys as a night watchman for the “harmlessly insane men and women” at the Poor Farm. Interestingly, the Poor Farm was neighbouring the Lewis home, which was possibly a former outbuilding of the Poor Farm.
Shortly afterward, they were married.
According to Woolaver’s full-length biography of Lewis and her husband, “Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door,” Everett kept her to a strict painting schedule even as her arthritic pain increased and her fingers gnarled more in later years. Maud’s arthritis and physical limitations made it so that housekeeping would be impossible for her.
Instead, she would sit at the only window and paint for hours each day. Everett had abusive tendencies and he isolated Maud from other people, Woolaver writes. She would in turn paint on anything she could get her hands on.
Wallpaper, particle board or cardboard to sell. Cooking trays, walls, shelving, furniture, stove, washbasin, window panes and door to practice and draw attention from the road.
The paints used were sometimes oils and sometimes left over house or boat paints, scrounged up by her husband who, by most accounts, was a penny-pinching miser and quite conniving. A reverend who visited Everett the day before he died says he obsessively rationed everything from food, to music. He would remove the batteries from the radio so Maud could not listen while she painted. According to this reverend and others, when Everett died no one in the county was sad.
Yet, in some accounts, Everett did care deeply for his wife and would do all the housekeeping she could not do. Apparently, he made Maud cardboard templates of animals to help her painting work be speedy in the worst arthritic flare-ups.
In actuality, there was probably a shaded blending of the contrasting versions of Everett.
Everett kept all of her money and hid it under the floorboards and in jars around the property, Woolaver writes and many Nova Scotians believe. He had grown up in foster care and had to pilfer and scrounge to survive throughout his youth. These habits remained throughout his adulthood apparently. There are even accounts that after Maud’s death in 1970 from pneumonia, her husband still had a hidden fortune buried on the plot of land they had shared. It was believed to be the fortune he had stolen away from her painting sales.
During the decade Everett outlived Maud, he even forged paintings by her and sold all of her belongings, including some very trivial items such as an iron for $1. He would eventually make some of his own paintings he would sell with his own name in the few years before he died. They would be sold for about $20 each on the roadside in the year before his 1978 death. At least one original Everett Lewis sold for $7,000 posthumously.
For exhibits that featured Maud’s work posthumously, dozens were suspected of being fakes and were dismissed by professionals tasked with weeding out the ones unlikely to have been made by Maud. At least two fakes have slipped through and were sold as her own work: a pair of hand-painted scallop shells that are now believed to be painted by Everett.
In fact, Everett’s death was the result of a murder on their property during a robbery that was likely fueled by the belief in his burying away Maud’s profits. When he refused to give up the secret hiding place where Maud’s swindled fortune was kept, he was killed by a young man.
Just the day earlier, on New Year’s Eve 1978, he had had a visit from a reverend. Everett told him he had just posted an ad for women to come “swing on the swing in his yard.”
During most of Maud’s life none of her paintings sold for more than $10, most of them to tourists passing through. She lived in relative obscurity up until 1965 when CBC aired a nation-wide documentary about Maud’s art and painted house.
The Richard Nixon White House commissioned two paintings and the Lewises asked to be paid upfront
That same year, Toronto Star published an article about her which featured the only professional photos taken of the Lewises, by Halifax-based photographer Bob Brooks. For those last five years sales jumped from the publicity. Maud received commissions from higher places. The Richard Nixon White House commissioned two paintings, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. For those two works, the Lewises apparently asked to be paid up front, perhaps not understanding who had commissioned the work or perhaps because of Everett’s increasingly eccentric and controlling or frugal disposition.
Over the years, after Maud’s death, her pieces have sold for thousands to tens of thousands. She did not live to see the great wealth that others have profited from. She did not know fame or glory, and only for her last five years did she get to experience something akin to fame – but without experiencing wealth and prestige. Even if her husband had hidden any wealth without her knowing.
Since Everett’s death in 1978, the Lewis house was restored and became part of a permanent art exhibit in Nova Scotia.
To this day, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has Maud Lewis’ artworks and painted house on display. Other museums showcase her work regularly, such as the Canadian Museum of History in Hull, Quebec, as well as galleries in major cities like Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
But it is still unclear if all of the Lewis’ buried treasures were ever found.