Finally, someone has written the must-have book on the work of Maud Lewis | Arts + Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia

JHere are north of 15 books about Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis, from coffee table tomes to children’s books teaching counting via the repeated iconography of her paintings. Many focus on his biography, striking the familiar notes of his late marriage and lonely youth in Yarmouth. There’s even a niche and a deep dive into how the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia preserved and restored Lewis’s famous Painted House. Almost all of these books are written by the same pair of authors (mostly male), sanding and smoothing the wood of your mental image of Marshalltown, Nova Scotia’s most famous woman. But among all those dozens of books and hundreds of pages, there’s something almost completely, oddly missing from the conversation: the discussion and dissection of Lewis’ own work.

Finally, art historian and curator Laurie Dalton is here to change all that. She proves that yes, in fact, we need another book on our province’s most famous artist: hers, titled Painted Worlds: The Art of Maud Lewis, a Critical Perspective.

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Nimbus Edition

Paintings like this, from a school in Bear River, show Lewis’ “mastery of color,” says Dalton.

Dalton’s fascination with Lewis runs deep – both lived in the Fundy Shore area and Dalton wrote a thesis on Lewis in 2003 – but “one thing I found extremely frustrating was not really considering his paintings like works of art,” she begins, speaking by phone with The Coast from the Annapolis Valley, where in 2018 the curator held one of the largest solo exhibitions of the artist’s work since 1997. “I felt that a lot of the storytelling and a lot of the storytelling around her around…her little house; [Lewis] as an example of the rural poor; as an example of Nova Scotian folk,” Dalton lists. “I felt he sometimes lacked a deeper understanding of seeing his paintings as works of art and also situating them in art history – in the language of cultural history. ”

Dalton notes that auction prices for a Lewis original are at an all-time high and the artist’s profile is still benefiting from the 2016 biopic Maudie— which means there’s no better time to ask why, although Lewis’ work is one of the most recognized in the country, it is regularly absent from serious considerations of Canadian art. “What drives mania and interest in it?” Dalton begins. “It’s no coincidence that when they try to market the province, they use Maud Lewis. There are all these different types of factors to claim it.

But while the tide of Lewis mania has never been higher, the direction of the water is also changing: award-winning Halifax author Carol Bruneau has cracked the candy coating of the Maud of our minds with her 2020 novel Light up the corner where you are, delivering a portrait of a self-reliant, chain-smoking survivor – using fiction to paint the most real-life portrait of the artist to date. Now Dalton’s book offers the same new perspective to Lewis’s work. “This book hopefully tried to situate her as an artist and not as a malleable product,” she says.

Click to enlarge This Lewis landscape shows that the artist not only captured the scene, but also its mood and essence, which puts her in relation to other modern artists.  - NIMBUS EDITIONS

Nimbus Edition

This Lewis landscape shows that the artist not only captured the scene, but also its mood and essence, which puts her in relation to other modern artists.

Painted Worlds frames Lewis’ work by discussing technique and color theory. He compares Lewis’ use of repetition to other famous artists known for repeating patterns – asking why Andy Warhol and Claude Monet don’t get demerit points for revisiting an idea as Lewis often does. The color book shares advertisements and ephemera (like vintage MacLean’s covers) which probably inspired the artist. It is not an ethnographic study or an act of rural Nova Scotian anthropology. It’s seeing Lewis for the artist she’s always been, finally — and you never need to have taken an art history class to understand the lesson.

“Some of his paintings … evoke not just the landscape of Nova Scotia, but the essence and the mood. I think it’s like saying, “No, she’s actually in that area and capturing that kind of essence.” And that’s another key thing that I talked about in the book: a lot of modern artists, when painting the landscape, were really interested in capturing the mood, the energy, the essence and the experience landscapes,” adds Dalton, comparing Lewis landscapes to those of Emily Carr. “And I think if you spend a bit of time, not just quickly looking at a Maud Lewis painting, I think it captures that vibrancy of those landscapes as well.”

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