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You can take Maud Lewis paintings out of southwest Nova Scotia, but you cannot take southwest Nova Scotia out of Maud Lewis. Fans of Canada’s most famous self-taught artist may never fully “get” her until they visit the small part of Nova Scotia that was all the landscape Lewis ever knew.
This was the inspiration for her paintings — simple yet colourful celebrations of the world she inhabited. As I travelled southwest Nova Scotia this summer, I couldn’t help but notice the obvious connection between the landscapes, seascapes, animals and gardens, and the artist who captured them all.
Every Maud Lewis painting arises from her life experience, which took her from her birthplace — the small shoreline town of Yarmouth — to a minuscule cottage less than 100 kilometres away, in Marshalltown, near Digby. In the 1965 CBC documentary series “Telescope,” Lewis commented, “I don’t go nowhere … I’m not much for travel anyway.”
Her tiny wooden cottage — measuring just about 12.5 by 13.5 feet, with a loft — may have travelled farther than Lewis ever did. She famously decorated almost every square inch of the home she shared with her husband, Everett, from their marriage in 1938 until her sudden death in 1970. Today, it resides at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, in Halifax, where any journey in search of Lewis should start.
In her house, carefully restored and exhibited in a dedicated gallery, you can get a sense of how constricted her life was. Lewis herself was small and misshapen by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and, possibly, childhood polio. But this woman, belatedly recognized for her talent and her vision, rose above her hardships to brighten her world with vibrant works of art.
Those paintings, which she sold for as little as $2, have now reached stratospheric values. Earlier this year, her painting “Black Truck” (1967) was auctioned for a record-obliterating $350,000.
Her art portrays cheerful, simple scenes, which you can discover on any visit to Yarmouth and Digby.
Many of her works feature fishing boats, as most of the communities she knew are ports. That’s true of both Yarmouth and Digby, but to truly get a feeling for Nova Scotia’s connection with the sea, visit one of the small port communities, and ideally, clamber aboard for a tour.
I sailed out of Wedgeport with Simon LeBlanc of Tusket Island Tours for an excursion with plenty of coastline views, and an added highlight: seafood chowder and Acadian folk songs served up at LeBlanc’s shanty on Big Tusket Island. I also took a picturesque trip with captain Kyle Redden and guide Tamara Frost of Bay of Fundy Scenic Lobster Tours. During both voyages, I glimpsed the lighthouses, fishing vessels and small shoreline towns, seen from St. Mary’s Bay and the Bay of Fundy, that were all raw materials for Lewis’s paintings.
You won’t find many southwest Nova Scotia homes painted in an authentic Lewis style, literally covered with vibrant flowers, birds and butterflies (although there is the Maud Lewis replica house, near Digby), but there are plenty of brightly painted buildings.
The waterfront of Shelburne is a superb example, as is a section of downtown Yarmouth. These historic buildings, adorned in unexpectedly vivid yellow, red, lilac, pink or teal, exude the same love of colour that moved Lewis to paint virtually every surface of her tiny home — even the stove.
Many of Lewis’s paintings feature oxen, and while you won’t find a lot of those around Nova Scotia these days, Roger d’Entremont, former executive director of Le Village historique acadien de la Nouvelle-Écosse, explained that much of the fodder in the area was “salt hay,” grass grown on tidal marshes. Oxen digest it better than horses do and would have been a common sight in Lewis’s world.
Le Village offers a hands-on experience of the local Acadian culture, as does the nearby Musée des Acadiens des Pubnicos. These sites, only four minutes apart, are filled with pioneer homes, locally built dories, an authentic (relocated) lighthouse, a blacksmith shop and gardens — like those in Lewis’s paintings.
Almost everything I encountered in Yarmouth and Digby told me more about the artist. In the latter area, the Maud Lewis Memorial Park is one good place to start a Lewis-focused tour. Ten minutes away from the park is the North Range Cemetery, where Lewis is buried.
Smith’s Cove offers a fine view of the Annapolis Basin and Digby Gut, a scene Lewis painted many times. Almost anywhere you can see the water in the Digby area, Lewis was probably there before you.
Practically every local resident has a Maud Lewis story. As children, they were afraid of her. As adults, they often disposed of her art, thinking it valueless.
So while art lovers are buying Maud Lewis paintings for megadollars today, southwest Nova Scotia is full of people who got them for $2 apiece — but have since lost or destroyed them!
What hasn’t been lost are the authentic and deeply beautiful scenes that served as raw inspiration for Canada’s premier — and unquestionably best-loved — self-taught artist.
Writer Paul Knowles travelled as a guest of the Yarmouth and Acadian Shores Tourism Association, which did not review or approve this article.
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