Thunder Bay Art Gallery Exhibiting Legendary Artist’s Work
By Penelope Smart, Curator, Thunder Bay Art Gallery
“Look, she’s put blossoms on the evergreens,” says one of two women as they look at a small painting with cows grazing in a field of spruce trees with impossible pink flowers. “That’s because she did what she wanted,” the other replies.
I laugh because it’s true. Canada’s small, frail, and beloved folk artist Maud Lewis (1903–1970), or “Maudie,” (as Hollywood calls her in the 2017 film) had a knack for imagination and for making things happen for herself. On day three of my new job as curator at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, it feels great to know there’s a powerful story of freedom, resilience, and joy already on the wall.
Maud Lewis is a collection of paintings from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s by the artist from rural Nova Scotia, curated by Sarah Milroy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. As the first-ever show of Lewis’s works in the gallery, this is a mega Maud experience. While stuffed with the artist’s familiar faces such as unblinking cats, big-eyed oxen, and gentle Bambis, the show reads as a nuanced story of hope and beauty in our own COVID times. Lewis made great success out of something we’ve been asked to do for the last eight months: stay home. Biographers marvel that Lewis never travelled further than 60 miles in either direction of her tiny shoebox house. She got famous by looking out of her kitchen window.
How did she do it? Lewis painted what made her happy. This is impressive, seeing as she was born into a world often stripped of kindness (she suffered physically from aggressive rheumatoid arthritis, her family kept the birth of her daughter a secret and gave the baby away, there was no fancy art supply store on her rural stretch of highway, and it’s generally agreed that her husband Everett, though not without his softer side, was a cantankerous dick). Instead, she possessed the true gift, or force of will, to focus on things that sustained her. She loved boats bobbing in the Digby gut, birds wheeling over fishing baskets, horse-drawn sleighs (you can almost hear the bells), Sunday drives in a Model T, surrealistic snowmen grimacing (go see the show). These happy memories from childhood not only fed her body and soul, they set her free.
Lewis was a person whose life might have been framed by many circumstances beyond her control: her disability, rural poverty, and pre-and-post war societal norms. She chose to look out her window, let her eyes fall on the people, places, and animals she loved, and claim them as her own. Her paintings are a great reminder to do this.
The Thunder Bay Art Gallery is open to the public during regular hours with COVID-19 guidelines in place. You can check out our website at theag.ca and follow the gallery on Facebook at @thunderbayAG for special holiday hours. Please wear a mask or face covering when you visit. The exhibition runs until January 3, 2021.