THE CALLA LILY DIALOGUES

CANADA’S OWN GRANDMA MOSES: Maude Lewis (1903-1970)

Calla Lily ArtArleen Solomon RotchinComment

People are intrigued by Maude Lewis because she created beautiful, joyful paintings in spite of the adversities she faced.

Born 1903, in rural Nova Scotia, Maude suffered from a series of birth defects that left her fingers painfully deformed, her shoulders hunched and her chin pressed into her chest.  

She received her first art lessons from her mother, who taught her how to paint Christmas cards which they sold to neighbours.  She also learned to play the piano which she enjoyed until her fingers became further ravaged by arthritis.

Her physical deformities brought her early grief: her classmates teased her mercilessly and she dropped out of school at 14 years old, having only completed Grade 5.

When both parents died in the late 1930, her older brother claimed the family inheritance and made no provision for his only sibling.  About the same time, Maude bore a child out of wedlock.  The baby girl was put up for adoption and never saw her natural mother again.

When she was 34 years old, Maud married Everett Lewis, a fish peddler.  According to the 40-year old Everett, she just showed up at his front door in response to an ad he had placed in local stores looking for a ‘live-in or keep house’.  Several weeks later they were married.

She would accompany her husband on his daily rounds peddling his fish, bringing along Christmas cards that she had drawn.  She sold each card for 25-cents.  

Everett encouraged his wife to paint and bought her a first set of oils.  

She painted outdoor scenes like Cape Island boats bopping on the water, horses pulling sleighs, skaters, cats, dog portraits, cows and birds.  

Most of her paintings were small-no larger than 8x10 inches.  The size of her work was limited by the extent she could move her arms.  She never blended or mixed colours.

Between the years 1945-1950, people began to stop at Maud’s house and buy her paintings for two or three dollars.  Only in the last years of her life, did her artwork begin to sale for seven to ten dollars.

She achieved national attention as a result of an article in the Star Weekly in 1964, and in 1965, she was featured on CBC-TV’s Telescope.

Unfortunately her arthritis deprived her from completing many of the orders that resulted from the national exposure.  

In recent years, her paintings have sold at auction for increasing prices.  Two of her paintings have sold for more than $16,000.  The highest auction price so far is $22,200.

In the last year of her life, Maud Lewis stayed in one corner of her house, painting as often as she could while travelling back and forth to the hospital.

She died in Nova Scotia on July 30, 1970.

Her husband Everett was killed in 1979 when a burglar murdered him during an attempted robbery at the house.

After both their deaths, the painted home began to deteriorate.  A group of concerned citizens from the area started the Maud Lewis Painted House Society, their only goal was to save the landmark.

In 1984, the house was sold to the Province of Nova Scotia and turned over to the care of Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Maud Lewis living quarters for decades in this room.  

Maud Lewis is the subject of a book, The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis and 3 National Film Board of Canada documentaries.

Like Maud (2005) is a short film in which a group of Grade 6 students are inspired by Lewis’ work to create their own folk art paintings.