Why Maud Lewis’s colourful paintings belong in an art gallery
Publication: The Toronto Star
Published: Wednesday, July 10, 2019
Author: Christine Sismondo
“PAINTINGS FOR SALE.”
Those are the words, in bold, white letters on a black background, illustrated with flowers, birds and butterflies. It’s a sign that thousands of mid-century road-trippers exploring Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy, travelling along the Digby Necks and Islands Scenic Drive, would have seen.
Some would have driven on, in a hurry to get to the beach. Many, though, intrigued by the sign and on the hunt for curios, accepted the invitation and turned off the road to enter the bright world created by folk artist Maud Lewis.
That sign greets visitors at the entrance to the recently opened Maud Lewis exhibition at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg. It’s still an invitation for travellers to spend time in the artist’s colourful universe and, at the same time, offers a way of dealing with one of the most common critiques of her work — that the paintings were commercial products peddled by an artist with no formal training.
As such, some critics may ask, do they belong in an art gallery? Well to many, certainly to curator Sarah Milroy, the answer is a resounding yes for a number of reasons, including the fact that in the paintings themselves there’s ample evidence that Lewis was doing more than just churning out souvenirs for American tourists.
“She was definitely working to make money to survive,” says Milroy. “So we wanted to put that issue front and centre and face it. But if she was really only making paintings for sale, if she was really just cranking them out, she wouldn’t have made so many changes and you wouldn’t see that profusion of variety that provides so much pleasure for viewers when you bring them all together.”