This month, the Acadia University Art Gallery has mounted a really interesting exhibition based on the life of folk artist Maud Lewis.
It’s called Whose Maud? and curator Laurie Dalton says the title has no typos. During the initial run of the show with works by painter Steven Rhude and hooked rug artist Laura Kenney, Dalton said she received lots of notes that there’d been a grievous spelling error.
In fact, she told last week’s artist talk at the gallery that the title was intended to pose questions of ownership.
“I looked at the ways she was packaged as a tourist commodity for the province — for the tourism industry, the museum industry and also the history of Nova Scotia — but also the way in which the identities of Maud Lewis have been forgotten,” she said.
The concept for the show, Dalton said, was to question all the ways in which people have laid claim to the legacy of Maud Lewis.
There’s no doubt that with the film Maudie, Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke helped catapult her into renewed popularity in recent years.
Since her death in 1970, Maud, who was actually famous for 25 years, has become everybody’s darling, particularly the tourism industry. Rhude and Kenney, in their work, have explored the darker side of rural society during an earlier era.
Rhude, who once lived in out-of-the-way Guysborough County, recalled meeting people who were part of and victims of the post-colonial structure in Nova Scotia. That experience made him consider Maud’s life in the context of the Marshalltown poor house she lived next door to.
Kenney, who lives in Truro, said she and the Wolfville-based Rhude began discussing Maud on social media after an exhibition about lighthouses at the Harvest Gallery. They asked questions without answers, carried out research and then began to create.
It’s important to think about artists as researchers, Dalton said, saying that’s been a key aspect that comes out of their artwork.
Speaking of the largest painting, a triptych showing the huge, creepy poorhouse, Rhude pointed out the characters in the foreground, including death coming for Maud’s husband Everett. He described biographer Lance Woolaver climbing into the old and unused structure to write a play about Maud.
“There were at least two Mauds - the sugar-coated one and the other Maud,” he suggested.
Rhude added he believes building such a dark view of a well-loved artist is best carried out in a university gallery setting where there is more latitude.
“It’s not the boardroom and there’s no branding to consider.”
The copyright for Maud’s work is held by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The most recent painting of hers that was auctioned garnered $14,000, but they’ve gone for far more – more than most of her professional contemporaries in the Maritimes.
Kenney sounded a bit haunted by Maud’s unmarried pregnancy in the time of the notorious ‘butterbox babies.’ She could have ended up in the poorhouse, Kenney said, where pregnant girls were over worked in the hope they’d miscarry.
Rhude reminded those present that Maud and Everett’s home had a window that looked right out on the poorhouse. Maud might have painted in a sunny window, but there was another, darker vantage point.
Both artists expressed appreciation for her artistry. In Rhude’s opinion, “She was the real McCoy. Maud was an anomaly for a female (artist). Her work was quite sophisticated.”
We can’t forget that she painted what expert Alan Deacon calls “jewel-like art” through the pain of severe rheumatoid arthritis, escaping the poverty of her life.
Another Maud-themed exhibit of original paintings from private collections is going on display at Acadia in August. It will examine both her art practice and her art through the personal stories, and memories that people have of the work in their collection.
Meanwhile, Whose Maud? will be on display at the university’s gallery inside the Beveridge Arts Centre until July 28. Go see it!
Then check out Canada’s Ocean Playground at Harvest Gallery, which teams up Rhude, Kenney and another fabulous hooker, Deanne Fitzpatrick. In the promo, there’s a thoughtful takeoff by Rhude of Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting Christina’s World. Instead of a haunted-looking house, he features what looks like the controversial Pictou pulp and paper plant.
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