Q&A with Dr. Laurie Dalton: Maud Lewis, mythmaking, and Nova Scotia folk art

Maud Lewis (1903-1970) is one of Nova Scotia’s most renowned artists. Living in a tiny house in Marshalltown, Digby County, she painted hundreds of works capturing moments of rural life. Tourists from all over stopped at her house to purchase paintings, and in recent years her works have become sought-after by collectors, reaching record prices at auction. For many, Mongrel Media’s film Maudie (2017), starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, was a first introduction to this artist but does the movie tell the whole story?

Director and Curator of the Acadia University Art Gallery and Adjunct Professor Dr. Laurie Dalton’s new book Painted Worlds: The Art of Maud Lewis, A Critical Perspective provides a much-needed critical examination of Maud Lewis’ art and places it within the context of modern art history and cultural analysis. We sat down with Dr. Laurie Dalton to learn more about this iconic Nova Scotian artist, and to separate the myth from reality.

Who was Maud Lewis?

Maud Lewis was a Nova Scotian Folk Artist who passed away in 1970. She is perhaps best known for her painted house. The house was in Marshalltown, near Digby, and after she passed away it went into a state of disrepair. There was an attempt to try and keep the house there, but ultimately it was acquired by the province of Nova Scotia, restored, and then moved to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, which is the way that most people will interact with the house today.

What drew you to Maud Lewis’ story?

I had been thinking about her since writing my master's thesis in 2003, “The Scotiabank Maud Lewis Gallery and the ‘Folking’ Over of Nova Scotia,” which examined the installation of her work at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. I continued my research into her life, house and artworks, with a focus on the narrations describing her. There has been so much storytelling about Maud Lewis from the early coverage of her work in the 1960s such as CBC Telescope, films by the National Film Board of Canada, the recent film (Maudie) that many people know, and countless books about her life. There was an emphasis on her life and biography as a way to look at her work, and I wanted to find a way to focus more directly on the artworks.

How is your book different from past books, documentaries and movies that describe Lewis’ life?

I asked myself, “does there need to be another voice laying claim to her?” But one of the things that I felt was missing from discussions of her work was a focus on the artworks themselves. I wanted to push back on the narrative that she was a naive, untrained artist. She was an astute observer of her surroundings. My approach, as an art historian, is to situate a discussion of her artworks in the cultural time in which she painted by examining art history, advertising culture and tourist ephemera, for example.

I also wanted to start a wider conversation about how we think of artists in general. Art historians have often used hierarchies in art, and many times folk artists are put on the periphery or the margins. This project is part of a wider conversation about the lines that have been drawn in art and challenges these assumptions.

What is your favourite Maud Lewis painting?

There is one in my book of Bear River. It’s a large-scale painting which is unique because she typically worked with a very specific size, so that painting is quite interesting. Some of my favourites are also her small notecards because they betray a lot of assumptions about her work: she didn't use shadows, she didn't understand colour perspective, or that she didn't deal with the background and foreground. These notecards, I argue, show that these assumptions are wrong. She has an amazing colour sensibility.

Other paintings included in the book are these winter scenes of towns, that are filled with detail, humour, colour, light, shadow, and scale. I find these really exciting because they challenge the preconceptions of her work.  Maud Lewis often repeated her imagery, and sometimes that has been used to detract from her work. Some say that she was repeating her images again and again to sell to the tourist market. One of the things that I examine in the book is that to have seen one Maud Lewis is actually not to have seen them all. All of her black cat paintings, or oxen paintings, are not exactly the same. They vary. Her work is more than happy black cats.

How did you go about situating Maud Lewis and her work within the social and cultural context of rural Nova Scotia?

Digging into the archives, for me, was central to writing this book because as far as we know Maud Lewis didn't keep a diary about her art and there aren’t a lot of interviews with her. One of the most important resources we have is CBC Telescope’s coverage of Maud Lewis where she was interviewed. Otherwise, what we have is mostly other people narrating their memories of Maud Lewis. When you do that, you're always speaking from your own point of view, memory, or your own perspective.

The archives were significant because I wanted to look at the conditions in which she was painting. I wanted to know what Yarmouth and Digby looked like in that period. What were the scenes that she would have encountered? In my book, I include many archival photographs and images by those documenting the area because they help capture the kind of energy and the environment in which she was painting.

How was digging into the archives?

Archives are a slow, long process. It can be hours and hours of scrolling through images, say, from the 1950s. There's an interesting archival find that I include in the book; a mail-order Eaton's catalogue in which there are key elements, I argue, that are also found in her house and in her paintings. The discovery of that particular Eaton's catalogue took many, many days of going through every page, in every year. As a cultural historian, that was a really important research process; one that was really necessary to situate Maud Lewis.

Digitized databases like NovaMuse or the Nova Scotia Archives are also invaluable resources. During COVID-19 restrictions I was able to continue my research when site visits wouldn’t have been possible.

Have your roles as Curator/Director of the Acadia University Art Gallery and as Adjunct Professor in the Department of History & Classics shaped your interpretation of Maud Lewis?

I have always felt that my academic research and my curatorial research inspire each other. Increasingly museums are being called to task with their own collections: the way museums have collected, the way museums have described objects and the responsibility of museums. Museums need to think about the ways they present exhibitions, the gaps in their collections, and the histories that have been missed. There's a need for self-reflection and this is something that I teach about in my classes, and I hope that I brought that into the book.

What are you hoping readers take away from your book?

I hope that readers take away a more nuanced view of Maud Lewis as an artist. I hope it encourages them to look at more of her works, and not just look at one of her paintings and think that's all of her work.

I also hope it gets them thinking about the ways we approach and understand art history, and the way collections are also built over time. We need to have a more nuanced view of history and a much more complex understanding of Maud Lewis. I hope people really continue to celebrate her and her artwork.

About the book

Painted Worlds: The Art of Maud Lewis, A Critical Perspective (2022), Dr. Laurie Dalton (author), Nimbus Publishing Limited, ISBN 9781774710586, 184 pages, $34.95 paperback.  

The book is available from bookstores online or from Nimbus Publishing Limited.  

You can also pick up a copy of the book on Saturday April 23, 2022, at the launch of Painted Worlds, held at 2 p.m. in the KCIC Auditorium at Acadia University.  

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