Famous reluctantly, Maud Lewis sold her paintings for $ 5

It has been said of modern / contemporary art that sometimes the strongest feeling it produces is the suspicion you have.

With the art of Maud Lewis, it’s the opposite. The suspicion is that she was had – perhaps, on purpose.

Even after she rose to fame for her distinctive folk art in the 1960s, she only reluctantly allowed her prices to rise. From $ 4.50 per table to $ 5. It’s true. Can you imagine the Sotheby’s auction? “Let’s start the auction at a quarter. Can I hear two bits? “

There is so much about Lewis’ art, his art practice, and his life that is so unusual, folkloric (alternately menacing and endearing), and so idiosyncratic that normal standards don’t seem to apply.

If you don’t know Maud Lewis and her work, you’ll know it once you visit the fascinating exhibition of her art – “Maud Lewis” – currently on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton; a version of the exhibition which debuted at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Vaughan in 2019.

Lewis, who lived from 1903 to 1970, painted with hardware store paints that her stingy and rough-hewn husband Everett Lewis, a laborer, fishmonger, and hardscrabble farmer, would take her home to the shack they shared in Digby, Nova Scotia. .

She painted – at the cost of physical hardship, given the severe arthritis that crippled and disfigured her – on boards and shingles that Everett would prepare. His scenes were colorful and nostalgic panoramas with bucolic charm.

Cart horses and oxen carrying logs; children skating on ponds; houses with red roofs on green hills; trains crossing the countryside; ships in seaports; deer against stands of evergreen trees; cats with scared eyes; golden and red autumn landscapes lay like blankets on a warm street of rural dwellings.

She painted in a folkloric, primitive style, and the carefree, reductive eye might at times be tempted to downgrade her work to glorified postcard status (although in today’s relativistic judgment draw, who can say that it is a demotion?). In fact, Lewis (née Doyle) started making Christmas cards with her mother.

That’s right, Lewis painted to order. His shingle said Paintings for Sale. But the results were distinctly his, true to his own peculiarity.

Some might find it difficult to move beyond aspects of Lewis’ approach – the flat dimension, disregard for sophisticated effect or polish (although some will find this a virtue as well); the underlying commercialism (at $ 5 a painting, a price difficult to stick); repetitiveness (hello, Andy Warhol).

Even the most reluctant must admit that, as Sarah Milroy, who curated this fascinating exhibit, points out, Lewis had a powerful, and distinctive, gift for color and composition. Eccentric, yes, but contagious.

“In how many ways could she play with the subject of the covered bridge, or the geometries of the boats moored at the quayside?” How did she manage to develop such a gift for color as a tool to structure a scene? “

Milroy, from the outset, in his preface, addresses the puzzle Lewis presents to curators, critics and collectors. Milroy calls it “guilty pleasure”.

Pleasure, because of “the riot of its color”. Guilty, because “his way of proceeding would seem to go against everything I understood of the artist’s vocation: to defend a singular and often critical vision of the world in the face of conformism and mercantilism”.

Art, according to the theory, should stand or fall on its own strength. Yet history is often inseparable from creative assessment, never so clearly as it is here. The “story” around her work is so strong that they made it into a movie – “Maudie,” starring Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.

Her life could hardly be believed if it hadn’t happened. Child out of wedlock. Cruelties. Deformation. An improbable fame. It’s covered very clearly in the catalog and in the 1960s TV documentary that is part of AGH’s “Maud”.

Throughout this life, art shines, unclassifiable as it is. No, you don’t feel helpless. You feel joy. There is no ironic detachment here. Simplicity is genuine and winning. Yet in her early 1940s paintings, as AGH curator Tobi Bruce points out, there is a real difference in style – one that shows a true natural mastery of more traditional talents in technique, composition and performance. harmony of colors.

A fascinating side exhibit is dedicated to the work of the late Poppa Wilson, Maud Lewis’ own version of the region – he adopted his own version of folk art at the age of 80. He died at age 95 in 2019.

The exhibition runs until January 9.

For more information, artgalleryofhamilton.com

Jeff Mahoney is a Hamilton-based journalist and columnist covering culture and lifestyle stories, commentary and humor for The Spectator. Contact him by email: [email protected]

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