The black cats. The bright colors. The peaceful rural setting. It’s impossible to misidentify a work by Maud Lewis, as Sarah Moore Fillmore, Interim Director & CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, puts it, “You get exactly what you need from the image… very quickly and very emotionally.” .” But despite Lewis’s fame — the record-breaking sales of her work, the biopic in which Sally Hawkins portrayed her, the level of prominence seldom accorded to a female visual artist — it can be surprisingly difficult to have the opportunity to see many of them to see. (Thanks to the fact that most Lewis originals are owned by private collectors rather than public galleries.)
But that’s about to change this Saturday, November 26, when a new exhibition celebrating the folk artist’s work arrives at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia from the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
“There is also a lot of criticism – and rightly so – of all the things that have happened to Maud from the outside. Like: infantilizing the work and the story and telling stories about her using her name Maud and not Lewis,” Moore Fillmore tells me. “You called her Lewis: you’re one of the few people who’s ever done that to her.” (Contrast this with a male artist: it’s significant that the film is about the abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock is called pollockwhile the movie is called by Maud Lewis Maudie.)
“People feel like they know her, they can call her by her first name and own the work because in many ways it’s theirs. But I think as a museum it’s important that we offer as many entry points without assuming too much of where people are from,” she adds, tapping into the deep connection many Nova Scotians have with their province’s most well-known artist. But while the narrative that gives the art its context should never (and will never) be far off, the East Coaster’s faithfulness to the folklore of Lewis’ life is not the point of this presentation.
Rather than focus on the arthritis, credit should be given to the simplicity of their later work; Instead of the poverty in which she lived, romanticization is often risked in her retelling; Rather than overemphasize the influence of her husband or her own art practice, this is an exhibition that returns the focus to its rightful center: Lewis’s artwork.
Moore Fillmore estimates that it has been several years (probably a decade, but she’s reluctant to commit to a hard number) since an exhibition of Lewis’ work of this magnitude has been staged in the artist’s home province. The show is a touring show, stopping in Edmonton, Calgary and Hamilton before settling in Halifax, and for Moore Fillmore it’s a “great partner” to the gallery’s permanent collection of Lewis’ home (which, alongside a few originals by Lewis in showing the AGNS, an exhibition refreshed this summer for the first time in 14 years with new works open to the public).
The self-titled exhibition comes to what appears to be a broader reappraisal of Lewis thanks to books like Laurie Dalton’s painted worlds, published earlier this year, in which an art historian discusses the value of Lewis’ creations. Similar to Dalton’s tome, the McMichael Exhibition Maud Lewis takes into account things like Lewis’s mastery of color and her penchant for serial imagery (Something that has historically been associated with her disability, but shouldn’t: Artists from Andy Warhol to Claude Monet repeat and explore imagery in their work.)
“I think she lives with artists who have stories that people associate with: Van Gogh and his ear and his diseases [for example]. People want to see things read through a certain lens. But as you enter the gallery you will be immediately struck by the color and style and her ability to draw graphic, decorative elements from the surroundings, what she was looking at and what people brought her. It’s become part of the way curators tell their story: telling the story of the work,” says Moore Fillmore. “There’s more than meets the eye. It’s more than just her physical history. There’s more to it than a cute story about resilience. There is a real artist in there.”
See Maud Lewis from November 26 to April 23, 2023.