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In The Hunt
Maud Lewis' House Insight Into Folk Artist's Life
 
By Yvonne Butorac
Halifax, Nova Scotia - Maud Lewis was a tiny woman with an enormous artistic talent, as visitors to her reconstructed house inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia quickly learn.
 
The AGNS opened the doors to the late folk artist's Lilliputian house in 1998 after restoring and reconstructing it inside the gallery.
 
The house is the centerpiece of a permanent exhibition of Lewis' colourful art. It is probably smaller than any room in your house and it is certainly more gaily decorated than in mine. Its lack of modern conveniences is astonishing, and yet from her chair near the window, Maud Lewis painted her world. When she ran out of canvas, she painted every surface in the house.
 
Lewis lived in a garden, summer and winter. In the mean little cabin, without central heating or indoor plumbing, she painted a fantasy world of cheerful children, pretty seascapes and cherry red songbirds. She splashed bright butterflies and birds across the front door; she filled her windows with pink and blue tulips; she decorated the dustpan with daisies and the stove with big red flowers. No surface escaped her brushes.
 
Lewis may have painted and sold as many as a couple of thousand pictures in her bold, happy style, but it is her house that confirms the inner brightness of this remarkable woman whose life was one of disability, poverty and ill health.
She painted not just for sale, but also for pleasure.
 
Her house consisted of one room, with narrow stairs leading to a sleeping loft, and measured just 3 by 4 metres, almost doll house in size. And yet she lived here with her husband, Edgar, from the time of their marriage in 1938, until her death in 1970. Edgar continued to live in the house until a burglar killed him in an attempted robbery in 1979.
 
Day after day, Maud sat in a chair by the window, her paints and canvas on a TV table in front of her, warmed by the big black cook stove, the air an unhealthy combination of cigarette smoke and turpentine fumes. And year after year, she produced gay scenes of boats in the harbours at Yarmouth and Digby, teams of oxen smiling in all seasons, and wide-eyed black cats playing amongst the cherry blossoms - idyllic and fun-filled scenes that in no way related to her own life.
 
The rescue of the tiny house began after Edgar's death, with the formation of the Maud Lewis Painted House Society. In 1984, the society sold the house to the Province of Nova Scotia, and finally, in 1995, space for the house was planned in an expansion of the AGNS. Restoration began. After careful disassembling, restoration and repair, the house was reconstructed on site.

Recently, the AGNS added a temporary display of Lewis Christmas cards on loan from private collectors. It is believed the cards were painted in the 1930s and 1940s, before her crippling arthritis prevented her from painting such small-scale subjects. Unfortunately, Greetings From Maud Lewis closes at the end of February, but just the knowledge that she produced these pen and ink and watercolor cards on embossed stock and signed them simply Lewis (or not at all), is important information for the collector.
 
Jeff Gray, manager of development for AGNS, said the question of the authenticity of signatures does come up. At different times, Maud signed Lewis, M. Lewis or Maud Lewis. In all cases, she printed her name without flourish, making it relatively easy to copy her signature. There is even the possibility that after Maud's death, Edgar produced paintings in her style and signed them with her name. Certainly, he created his own paintings which he signed Edgar Lewis.
 
The gallery's exhibit includes a number of early Maud Lewis paintings, which are not nearly as bold in colour or stroke as those for which she is better known. Again, these may have been done at a time when her hands were less crippled. The gallery relies on provenance to establish authenticity. Often, the owners can confirm stopping at the painted house to buy a painting from Lewis directly. If you have Nova Scotia connections and you think you have a Maud Lewis painting, it may easily be genuine.
 
The paintings that Lewis sold for a few dollars now command prices up to five digits. At an auction in the fall of 2006, The Church On The Hill sold for $9,200, and a year earlier, a familiar image of a sleigh and team about to cross a covered bridge went for $10,925.
 
Many Maud Lewis paintings look remarkably similar to others. When Maud liked a subject, she repeated it often. There is more than one Two Deer in The Snow and any number of well-harnessed oxen teams are known.
 
Maud Lewis' house was her refuge and her canvas. To see her paintings in the context of the house adds extra appreciation for her art. For more information on the Maud Lewis permanent exhibition at the AGNS, visit www.agns.gov.ns.ca/maudlewishouse.
 
Another great source is The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis, written by Lance Woolaver and wonderfully illustrated with photographs by Bob Brooks.
 
Photo Captions:
1 - Maud House - Maud Lewis lived her entire married life in this tiny cabin that measures only 3 by 3 metres.
2 - Typical happy winter scenes on display.
3 - Lewis turned the cook stove into a work of art.
 
 
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