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The Curious Life of Maud lewis

Words:

Edd Norval
March 19, 2018

The work that artists commit to a page or canvas comes from their mind, their memories - from things that they've seen or experienced. Maud Lewis managed to paint colourful and genuinely joyful landscapes all whilst living a hermitic life in a small cabin.

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It's easy to talk about enchanted lives - most of the world lives one in one way or another. Maud Lewis however was different, she had a limited existence, a hard fact that seemed to cause her no paint - certainly not manifest in her art. No matter the subjects, whether flowers or cows in a field, everything seemed happy. Beneath the surface though, her life had been anything but.


Lewis spent 32 years of her life secluded in a tiny house. Throughout those years, she took her time to cover nearly all surfaces (windows, doors etc) of it in her naive and bright illustrations. This proclivity gained her some degree of renown as an eccentric artist - just not the kind that was welcome in museums.


She was seen as an oddity - her house on the side of the road was a stop-off point for people who wanted to see if the rumours were true. Was there really this diminutive lady that just sat around painting her house all day?

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She was the star of a television documentary in 1965 - five years before her death, which helped her gain some recognition. But now, posthumously her star is rising again. She's the titular character in a new film called Maudie with Sally Hawkins playing the lead role and Ethan Hawke starring as her husband. Due to the pervasive nature of social media, someone like Lewis wouldn't remain unknown nowadays for long - she'd be all over the web as the famous-yet-talented recluse. A human interest piece that would have celebrities queuing up to buy her art. Sadly though, in her lifetime she was misunderstood by everyone except those closest to her. Not that that seemed to bother her.


Human beings seek joy, courtship, love - but often overlook the rarest and most satisfying of all of these - contentment. The person who is content tends to be all of the above rolled into one - they have peace-of-mind. With her art and her idea that any surface was a blank canvas - Lewis was content with her life, at least on the surface.


The people that would stop-by at her house were able to buy small paintings for $5, giving the home a steady stream of income to supplement her husband's job as a fishmonger. Now though, her paintings have reached up to $45,000 at auction. It seems though, that even if they had had that value when she was active, it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Lewis manifested her dreamlike perception of the world onto paper - living it out as she navigated the halcyon landscapes. When the painting was complete, the value was just an arbitrary number. It was all about the joy of the living-act of painting it.

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Idyllic in nature, the paintings are a mixture of memories from her childhood and the things she had seen on her infrequent trips out of her cabin. There are no dimensions, no shadows in her work - it's all light. Perhaps a conscious choice or perhaps just one limited by her technical ability - it's hard to imagine any darkness creeping into her paintings. That they are totally devoid of it is testament to something beyond a sunny disposition.


Her life was marred with difficulty - being disowned by her family, misunderstood and maligned by society for her awkward demeanour and contained to a life of servitude in such small quarters. Resilience is what seemed to keep her going, she seemed to hold no grudges. Her husband encouraged her to paint, but also treated her absuively - both physically and verbally, despite Maud's small stature - no mercy was shown from him or anybody else. It was like no one could believe she had the capacity to feel their words.


She wasn't completely unknown in her lifetime though, after the documentary she began to receive acclaim in the press. Richard Nixon even ordered some of her artwork for the White House.


Twisted and gripped by arthritis though, Lewis was unable to keep up the pace of her new found fame, eventually passing away in 1970 as someone greatly admired, albeit from a distance. The film of her life portrays rare moments of disguised anguish that are otherwise invisible in her art. What we have left is a collection of work by an incredible woman. What's less clear is whether her paintings were the world as she really saw it, or if they were how she wished it would be. The sad thing is that the joy on the page might be the only real joy she felt.

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