If you read about the end of her life—at age 67 buried in a child’s coffin, lowered into a pauper’s grave—you might think how tragic. Maud Lewis lived with many physical defects, including crippled hands and hunched shoulders that caused her chin to rest against her chest. But her bold, happy spirit could have filled an art gallery—eventually it did.
Maud Lewis, born in rural Nova Scotia in 1903 lived a simple childhood, and by all accounts had a sweet disposition. As an adult, although awash in poverty and a bitter marriage, joy surfaced and found a stage in her folk art.
As a child, Maud’s mother taught her to hand-paint Christmas cards, which were sold to neighbors. She played the piano until her fingers grew too arthritic. Even though she quit school after the fifth grade, perhaps due to the taunting of classmates, she had a fairly normal life with her parents.
When her parent’s died in the late ‘30s, her life took a dismal turn. Her brother took the inheritance and left her penniless. A miserly fish peddler, Everett Lewis, hired Maud to be his housekeeper and married her. Their cottage had 272 square feet (16 sq. meters) of space with a sleeping loft. She lived in the one-room hut without electricity or plumbing until she died. A single window lighted the objects she decorated with her art.
Soon after marrying, she painted tulips, birds, animals, and flowers on nearly every surface of the house inside and out. Her miserly husband scrounged and furnished leftover boat paint. Her later paintings, he sold and often hid the money from her.
Maud painted tea tins, dust pans, wallpaper, window panes, and the cottage door. The tiny residence looked like a queen’s garden had bloomed. Fanciful birds, bees and butterflies had flocked to it. Even her wood burning cook stove boasted art work. Her art is in high demand today, and she has become the Grandma Moses of Canada.
After Maud and Everett Lewis were both gone, their small house remained empty for five years and fell into deterioration. An art gallery acquired the cottage and restored it. “The Painted House” now sits in a nook of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Hallifax. To date, it is the most beloved exhibit warehoused there.
With severely crippled hands, sardine tins for her palette and card board for canvases, Maud Lewis’ zest for life flowed through the tips of crude bristle brushes. The tiny frail woman refused to kowtow to a dingy existence.
Maud chose to brush stroke joy onto everyday life.