Maud Lewis: Life without Shadows, or a Canadian Tragedy?

I spent last evening researching Maud and Everett Lewis’ life in the period 1900 to 1979, and was struck by the interpretations of their  lives that ranged from a condemnation of the tragedy of two lives lived so much on the edge of abject poverty, and the conflicting view that theirs was an idyllic life free of consumerism and outside influence.


I suspect the truth or what we can perceive as a sort of truth can be found somewhere in between those two poles.

Without any whitewashing, Everett Lewis, who was quite a bit older than Maud and a bit of a ‘character’ in the community, was born at the “Poor Farm” in Marshalltown, Digby County. This was a huge Norman castle style wood-frame structure which after outliving it’s usefulness and falling vacant, burned to the ground in the 1960’s or 70’s. It is unclear whether his mother was a resident or an employee there, and nothing is known of his father.

He grew up on the poor farm (each county in the province at that time, and into the early 60’s had such an institution which was legally described as being a refuge for the harmless insane and indigent needing care) and worked as a  day labourer in the community  and later as night watchman at the Home.

He was given or bought a small plot of land from the Poor Farm to which he moved a small building and repaired it to live in. I can recall many similar small residences scattered around rural areas during the 40’s and 50’s and 60’s. They were mostly painted white with green and were neat and tidily cared for outside. Maud’s decorations both inside and out must have opened a whole new concept of beauty and comfort to a man who had lived a somewhat spartan life thus far. Her elfin presence must have been a wonder to him. I’m sure he didn’t expect that much from life.


Meanwhile, Maud was born to John and Agnes Dowley in South Ohio, Yarmouth County in 1903. It soon became apparent that Maud had a disability which caused stunted growth and deformities of the hands and feet. Little would have been known about this form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the time, and it would not have been recognised as a treatable auto-immune disease. Maud, for various reasons, finished with school at the grade three level and stayed at home with her mother. She had a brother who later inherited the family home.

Maud and her mother worked at home, handpainting greeting cards and selling them in the community of Yarmouth, to which her family had moved and where her father, a harness maker, had set up a successful shop.


Maud’s life as she had known it, supported by loving family ended in the 1930’s when her parents died within several years of each other and Maud was sent by her brother to live with an aunt in Digby, about 40 miles up the road along the Bay of Fundy. Clearly this was not an ideal situation for Maud, and she applied for a job as ‘housekeeper’ to Everett Lewis and soon was married to him, and was living with him in the tiny cottage in Marshalltown by 1938.


Everett at that time was an itinerant fish peddler and Maud continued painting her greeting cards and accompanied him as he went on his route and also sold her cards to his’ customers, who were eager to buy the attractive, cheerful little cards. Since Maud’s mobility was becoming increasingly limited, Everett maintained the house and cooked while Maud painted from her chair by the front window and contributed her earnings to the household. She was able to get out less and less.

Everett had seen the opportunities with Maud’s skill, and quickly bought Maud her first set of oil paints and encouraged her to begin painting on beaverboard, masonite board and whatever other solid pieces of wood and metal came their way – bright oil paints and enamels used for painting houses and boats were used as people gave them to the couple and Maud fell into painting more ambitiously and selling her paintings by her roadside house.

The house became a ‘destination’ and word of the quaint home and quirky paintings available there spread . I question if Maud ever viewed herself as an artist or whether instead, she contented herself with the joy the painting process engendered in her and the feeling of satisfaction that being able to contribute money to the household brought her.

Her technique was to use the paints straight, without any mixing or blending, and this technique made it look as though there were no shadows in her paintings. Most of her paintings were in the roughly 7×10 size that fit her limited mobility and the limited space the house  offered in which to spread out and paint. At least three much larger paintings are known to exist, but no more have shown up.

Her sense of composition and her ability to provide depth and persective to her painings without using shading  is surprising.

At the same time, Maud began embellishing every surface both inside and outside the tiny house. In addition, it has been documented that she painted a complete set of 14 shutters for the home of an American couple who summered in the area, and this set was later acquired by Clearwater Seafoods which has an extensive Nova Scotia Folk Art collection. It is hoped that eventually these works will be seen by a larger segment of the public than currently has access to them.

Maud died of complications that disabled her severely following a fall and broken hip, at the age of 67 in 1970.

Some years after Everett’s death in 1979 – as a result of a home invasion, assault and attempted theft – the vacant house began to fall victim to time and no maintenance,  and eventually, with the help and support of a local group, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia acquired, dismantled and stored the embellished house and contents  until they found the funds and space to rebuild and restore the structure safely within the walls of their waterfront Halifax Gallery where it remains a popular focal point for an extensive and eclectic collection of Canadian and regional art, in addition to the significant Maud Lewis collection and a world-renowned collection of other Nova Scotiam folk artists.


 This brings me to question the legitimacy of viewing Nova Scotia Folk Artists within a context which may not reflect the truth and realities of rural life at the time that they were actively making art, and which may have more to do with our perceptions as seen through the lens of 21st century urban sensibilities…………..For an opposite take on Maud’s place in the context of her time check out -this view, although legitimate, it was arrived at outside the cultural milieu of the time, and through the lens of an outsider to Nova Scotian rural culture:


Much is made of the fact that the couple lived in a small and simple cottage which had no electricity and no indoor plumbing.

Living museums in the United States are beginning to recognize that they have ignored the large number of small, modestly sized houses in favour of preserving the large, mansionlike homes of established, in fact wealthy, residents; and are rectifying the impression that everyone lived in spacious surrounding by recreating  smaller – one up and one down houses – which were the first houses in new settlements in Eastern Canada and New England, and a mainstay for working class people at all times in our rural history. 

History is coming full circle as I speak, and a movement towartd small, green housing is taking hold.

Much is also made of the fact that there was little disposable wealth in Maud and Everett’s pockets and only the most rudimentary of transportation.

The reality is that there were few social safety nets in rural early 20th century Nova Scotia or indeed elsewhere in Canada. No old age security, no family allowance payments, little in the way of welfare payments to those who had no work. You made your own way in life as best you could and  you went to the county home or stayed in your home and relied on local community welfare payments and whatever work you could pick up – when I began work as a helpiung professional in 1962, the average wage for day labour was standing at around fifty cents an hour. People still living close to the land could pick up fish, pheasant, rabbit etc at minimal or no cost and barter or gardening would easily produce root vegetables, apples and berries. In the mid 60’s it was still easy to find a roadside vender to sell you a mackerel for 25cents. Blueberries and wild raspberries were free for the picking and even today if I could not afford to buy apples, at this time of year I can pick from hedgerow wild apples up and down my road.

The reality of a tiny house is that is it enough room for one or two people with simple needs and not much incentive to pile up possessions. The smaller a woodheated house is, the easier it is to keep cozy. No plumbing means that no pipes freeze, and no costly and fragile septic system is required. Lack of electricity makes it one less bill to pay a month and cuts off the need to buy appliances like washer/dryer, freezer/fridge and so on. Rural electrification came late to Nova Scotia and wasn’t complete until after the second World War, and therefore there was no way to run a pump to supply water in the house for sinks, bath and toilet. The hand pump at the kitchen sink was an improvement that allowed water to be carried elsewhere in the house where it was needed. Many people, though, still got their water at a brook or at a small shallow dug well or spring.

 Even today, there are parts of interior and offshore Nova Scotia which are still off-grid despite the fact that people live in those areas, and despite the fact that some might easily afford to bring in conventional electric power. Fortunately alternative technology has recently shown us how to get around these issues.

I keep thinking of my own growing up and early adult years in this province and comparing my perceptions with how life must have been for Everett and Maud. They had access to the candy boxes, magazine illustrations, calenders and other pictures that reflected Western popular culture at that time: Few houses had more than a Bible and a few pictures or calenders on the wall. Maud frequently painted the pairs of bluebirds so commonly seen on candyboxes(Bluebird Toffee tins), greeting cards and embroidered pillowcases. The cottage on a hillside with trees around and smoke rising from the chimney was another motif, perhaps handled with more sophistication by the ceramicist Clarice Cliff; and she (and later Everett too as he began to paint to take up the slack in Maud’s increasing orders) called on their surroundings to show small docks with coastal schooners tied up, activities in the woods, on the roads and on the farm with teams of working horses and oxen. These sights were common around the province and work animals even now are still seen.

I guess what I’m saying is that life was not easy at that time, but it also was not necessarily grinding abject poverty either, and that despite possibly some social stigma attached to them, Maud and Everett had a social network of community support. They were part of their community, contributed what they could and in turn were supported by it.

We cannot judge their life experience by the values of our present-day culture, which is urban, connected by technology and very cash-conscious.

 They lived in a different time and in a different place.

To explore their story further you might like to view some of these websites: for the opp’ortunity of bending your ear yet again, and check us next week for more news and views.

Mich on the left coast and Janet in the mysterious east!!


One response to “Maud Lewis: Life without Shadows, or a Canadian Tragedy?

  1. Pingback: Maud Lewis: Life without Shadows, or a Canadian Tragedy … « larrymatthews

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