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Maud Lewis - Exhibition Review

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

June 29, 2019- January 5, 2020 at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Walking into the Maud Lewis exhibition at the McMichael is like walking into a children’s book. Brightly coloured, cheery scenes of everyday life and animals hang on the wall like windows to an imagined world.

Maud Lewis (1903-1970), a Canadian folk artist, is known for her small works that capture life in rural Nova Scotia. Her works exude a happiness that overcome her struggles with rheumatoid arthritis and living in poverty.

Spanning three gallery spaces following the exhibition The Art of Canada, which displays works from the McMichael’s permanent collection, this exhibition furthers the McMichael’s mandate to “interpret and promote Canadian…art” and exposes a different voice: an East Coast female folk artist who made art to sell.

Maud Lewis, Three Black Cats, 1955, oil on pulpboard, private collection - Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Lewis’ paintings are rooted in repetition of certain motifs and imagery: flowers, oxen pulling carts, fuzzy cats, deer and boats. Paintings with the same focal point are hung together in the galleries, with only the backgrounds differing in their seasons and composition. By placing these similar works side-by-side, viewers can play “spot-the-difference”.

My favourite pieces are her black cat compositions because they're cute little fuzzy creatures that remind me of my sister's pet. I love when an artist creates playfully instead of focussing on always being serious and addressing important or controversial matters. Big discussions are important in art - but having fun is too!

The gallery spaces are used exceptionally well to exemplify Lewis' changing life in Nova Scotia. The first space begins with a text explaining her artistic roots: painting Christmas cards with her mother. The artworks depict early farm life and her sign advertising “Paintings for sale” is on display. As the viewer enters the second space, they are introduced to the seaside which reflects her marriage to Everett, a fish peddler. In the last gallery a shift is seen: one wall displays paintings of carts pulled by oxen and the other wall shows Model T. Ford cars. Through the texts on the walls, these stages of Maud Lewis’ life are explained clearly and concisely.

Knowing Lewis’ personal hardships of poverty, a harsh family, losing a child, and her physical disabilities, offers an over-arching theme of finding joy in the midst of hardship through her nostalgic paintings of happy moments.

This exhibition is perfect for families with young children because of Lewis’ playful, whimsical style and imagery that has a childlike simplicity which is open to interpretation. The wall texts are easy to read and kid-friendly. This exhibition might also attract an older audience who will enjoy the nostalgia that Lewis’ style evokes. Personally, I enjoy "happy" art: vivid colours, cute animals and playful compositions. This really is a feel-good exhibition because of the joy Lewis' art conveys.

Maud Lewis, Two Deer in Snow, mixed media on board.

This exhibition is successful in its organization: somewhat chronological but also fun to discover. Furthermore, the wall text contextualizes her work for anyone of any age to understand. While this makes this exhibition family-friendly, I do think a dimension of complexity is lost by omitting aspects of Lewis’ life. Her paintings don’t explicitly convey the hardships she faced which is why the wall text could go into more depth for an interested viewer. While the catalogue does offer more insight into Maud Lewis, many will leave without hearing her full story.

Have you checked out the Maud Lewis exhibit at the McMichael? Let me know in the comments if you have, or if you're interested!

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