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  • Writer's pictureStephen Della Casa

Reflections On Maud Lewis

Themes: Women in Art, being an outsider, being accepted, Poverty, Folk Art, Do It Yourself (Punk Attitude), Perseverance, Optimism, Gallery Psyhcology

This drawing, a somewhat dreamy, melancholy scene is from the June 2019 to January 2020 Maud Lewis exhibition at the McMichael Gallery, Kleinburg, Ontario. I chose to draw this as it relates to the social and political change and our approach to Maud Lewis. It also comments on the presentation of her works and our thinking about non-professionals and their place in the art world.

Without artistic credentials or any art network, Maud Lewis lived about as far away from the Canadian art world as you could get. From her modest home she was an outsider to the establishment but that did not deter her dedication to her work and her sense of optimism. Economically, she lived below the poverty line making a living on meager art earnings from her roadside folk art in Digby County, Nova Scotia. From about the late 1940’s to mid 1960’s she would greet potential customers who would stop to admire the playful, joyously painted flowers on her home. On a rare occasion, she would sell a painting for about for $4 ($45 today) to these transient visitors, however during the last 3 or 4 years of her life, and likely after the CBC piece, she would sell paintings for as much as $10.

In the last years of her life in 1965, she a had a brief taste of wider recognition through articles in Toronto’s Star Weekly and a news segment on CBC Television. She passed away in 1970 and her work began to gain acceptance posthumously. In the early 1970’s The Richard Nixon administration ordered two pieces for The White House and her home was sold to the province of Nova Scotia 1984 for $11 000. After this time, her this legacy was to be preserved by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

The scene as I drew it uses One Point perspective. I used the Luke Painter lesson as a basis to begin this piece. I started by making a horizon line, then created the Vanishing point which would have been located near the top of the “E” of the Maud Lewis signature sign. I drew my figures by completely drawing around them and then added detail lines on the interior. This was shown in one of Erin Finley’s descriptive and helpful (to me, thank you, Erin!) video’s. I used facial tissue paper to create the smudging and the blur. My technique emplyed making vigorous hatch marks with the 6B and 4B pencils by making a blend on another piece of paper. I applied pressure to it with the several sheets of tissue. Once the graphite material was on the tissue, I applied it over the drawing in circular or back and motions, heavy pressure in some areas, much lighter or none in other areas to create that diffuse Bokeh (out of focus) quality. This provided a depth and slight realism to the drawing.

I created an interior space that is somewhat blurred, sort of out of place, perhaps dreamlike. There are a few figures in the scene, and they are rendered in the same tonal values as the gallery scene. The figures are accessories to the gallery system. The view is one of being outside looking in, much the same way one can reflect on Maud Lewis’s relationship with the art world.

The art works, and the exhibiting space seem to be almost there but just out of reach. Maybe this is a dream sequence that Maud Lewis may have had thinking someday that her works might get shown in a high art setting.

There is a sense of detachment here, as if the closer you try to get this this, the farther away it becomes. Perhaps this art presenattion experience would not be met with Maud’s approval. Maybe this type of showcase was never her dream. It left me wondering if there was a better way to do this and I wonder how we might have celebrated her life and work if there were a different approach to the typical high art gallery system. This gallery approach judges Maud's work and annoints it with elite status worthy of high art priveledge. And the viewers too whom after their pre/post exhibit brunch in Kleinburg likely spent more on that brunch than Maud did for a month on groceries.

What if honouring the work took us to a place that Maud would know and love. What if an outdoor tactile installation in a nearby hamlet or just outside a village were to be set up. The experience set on a tourist road, would include: directional signage; gravel roadside parking; a small wooden sided dwelling; an actor performing as Maud Lewis and maybe her often difficult husband; replicas of her then $4 and $5 works that we could pick up touch and ponder and smile. For me at least, judging her work in this gallery system is blind to the art. Maud's work demands presentation on her own terms it and would go a long way to help us connect with this important Canadian.

Stephen Della Casa

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