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Maud Lewis: Creative Resilience

Nova Scotia’s greatest cultural export is, ironically, an artist that never left the province. Nonetheless, in the form of her paintings, her story, and her brand, Maud Lewis has traveled the world. Most recently she has been traversing Canada on a national tour that has seen her work displayed from coast-to-coast in Victoria, Thunder Bay and Calgary, among others. Organized by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinberg and curated by that gallery’s chief curator, Sarah Milroy, Maud Lewis finishes its cross Canada trek here in Nova Scotia. That’s fitting, as almost all of the 130-plus works in the exhibition are from Nova Scotia collections. As Milroy noted, “their collegiality in sharing their Maritime treasures with all Canadians is much appreciated.”

Nova Scotia has always been ahead of the curve on the Maud Lewis story. After all, we recognized her artistic value long before galleries in the rest of the country, and there would have been no feature film or national and international tours without the early (and ongoing) efforts of the AGNS to preserve Maud’s house, art, and legacy. The McMichael’s exhibition then, is an opportunity to both celebrate a beloved local artist, and to realize how much that artist is loved beyond our borders.

Milroy started the discussion about a Maud Lewis project back in 2017, and the exhibition opened in Kleinberg in 2019. As installed at the AGNS, the show groups Lewis’s work into themes such as: By the Seaside, Creatures Great and Small, and From Here to There. It is an appropriate approach to Lewis’s work, which, because her repetition of subject matter makes a chronological approach (the standard of many other retrospectives) unworkable. It also allows the viewers to see how familiar subjects like the black cats or the yoked oxen fit in with other works. There is a significant selection of early works, Christmas cards from the 1940s and a series of painted shutters that once graced a house in Digby county.

What the McMichael staff came to call the “Maud effect” was apparent at the exhibition opening. People were, quite simply, overjoyed to experience this collection of work. It was a feeling shared by audiences across the country. “People came to see the show in droves, “ explained Jennifer Withrow, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection’s Exhibition Coordinator. “It brought a spark of joy.” Touring during the darkest days of the pandemic, and adversely affected by various closures that made the tour even more difficult than such a complex project would be normally, Maud Lewis was a tonic for depressing times. “It just lifted the museum,” Withrow explained, there was “an immediate, enthusiastic reaction.” Despite the anxiety around the pandemic, the tour was successful at every venue. “It brought people out who wouldn’t have come otherwise,” she said. “It was magnetic to people across Canada, who were so grateful to have something so full of life at such a dark time.”

AGNS Interim Director Sarah Moore Fillmore is no stranger to the “Maud effect,” having curated Maud Lewis: As Collected by John Risley in 2017, as well as Maud Lewis and the Nova Scotia Terroir that toured to China in 2019-20. But this exhibition is important to the AGNS beyond its popularity and its evidence of Maud Lewis’s acceptance by the larger Canadian art world. “The AGNS pays constant attention to how we can look at Maud in a new way,” Moore Fillmore explained. “to think about her as an artist, whose creativity bursts through a story of resilience.” This touring exhibition serves an important purpose Moore Fillmore believes. “I want this to be an entry point,” she says, “to see the diversity of Maud’s practice.” The exhibition, and the public programming that will support it, will allow the gallery to “start to dig into the changing conversations around Maud,” she explains, “to examine the work with some degree of criticality.” The goal for Moore Fillmore is not to have a conversation about folk art versus contemporary art, but to “see her in context as a Nova Scotian artist.” The AGNS’s exhibition strategy is “centred in contemporary art,” Moore Fillmore says, and it is important that Lewis’s work “be seen with the same level of respect that everything else is.”

The installation, spare and minimal, is focussed on the work rather than on decorative flourishes; the walls are white, setting off the bright colours of the paintings. This is deliberate Moore Fillmore says, an approach she describes as “contemporary and respectful.” The exhibition is an opportunity to see Maud Lewis with fresh eyes, as an artist rather than an as an icon, an opportunity that the AGNS is pleased to be able to offer to its audiences. Maud Lewis “celebrates collections that have been seen across the country,” Moore Fillmore says, and “makes sure that Nova Scotians see them.”

Nova Scotians will have that opportunity until April 23, 2023.
Ray Cronin is a Nova Scotia-based writer, curator, and editor, and the author of eleven books on Canadian art. His most recent, Alan Syliboy: Culture is our Medicine, was published in December 2022 by Gaspereau Press. He is the founding curator of the Sobey Art Award, and former Director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

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