Echoes abound between Nova Scotia’s Maud Lewis and Detroit folk artists

Maud Lewis Home
The interior of Maud Lewis's home, now in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. - Jim Bloch

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia takes step in democratizing art

By Jim Bloch

By opening windows in the walls between fine art and folk art, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has taken big strides toward democratizing art.

For Lewis, it’s flowers

Peek through the windows of the house of celebrated Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis, restored and reassembled in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and behold the colorful, repeated images of flowers and birds all over her walls, furniture and appliances.

I immediately thought of two southeastern Michigan artists who used houses as canvases: Tyree Guyton, creator of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, and Dmytro Szylak (1920-2015), the Ukrainian immigrant who created Hamtramck Disneyland in his backyard over the last 30 years of his life.

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Folk art and fine art share two indispensable links, according to Thor Hansen, the Danish-Canadian designer.

“One is the extensive use of symbolism and the other is a rhythmic repetition similar to that found in musical composition,” said Hansen. “A strong and vigorous folk movement, embracing all the legitimate crafts, assures the healthy continuous growth in the fine arts of a nation.”

Lewis (1903-1970) covered her house with painted flowers and birds, which may be seen as symbols of a vibrant, teeming natural world and freedom of movement, both of which were circumscribed for her.

Born with juvenile arthritis, Lewis’s chin did not develop and her growth was limited. Her condition worsened as she aged and her freedom of movement became increasingly constrained as her joints swelled. Her physical difficulties meant that most of her paintings were small, around 10 by 12 inches.

For Szylak, it’s stripes

For Szylak, stripes became the main visual music of his backyard creation, augmented with symbols of nature and flight, just like Lewis: Cats, deer, horses, cows, rocket ships, airplanes and propellers. The numerous found paintings in Hamtramck Disneyland suggest flights of imagination — and how transitory the products of imagination can be.

Dmytro Szylak's Hamtramck Disneyland
Dmytro Szylak’s Hamtramck Disneyland. – Jim Bloch

For Guyton, it’s dots

Guyton began work on the Heidelberg Project in 1985, around the time Szylak began his Disneyland. But instead of a single lot or house, Guyton transformed his childhood neighborhood into a massive art installment. Giant dots and similarly shaped clocks became his one of main visual forms of music. Dot House featured a white house covered with giant dots of different colors. Guyton decorated another house with hundreds of 33 rpm vinyl albums, another with numbers, another with stuffed animals. Abandoned cars, boats, trees, sidewalks and the street itself became canvases for Guyton. His work challenged notions of urban decay, questioned if the natural lives of consumer goods ever really ended, and art itself.

Maud Lewis
Tyree Guyton’s Dot House, part of his Heidelberg Project. – heidelberg.org

Lewis celebrated

Maud Lewis
A photo of a photo of Maud Lewis in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. – Jim Bloch

Maud learned to paint by helping her mother make Christmas cards and selling them to neighbors. After her parents died, Maud married local fish peddler Everett Lewis, who sold her small paintings on his route.

Untrained as an artist, with a vibrant sense of composition that developed as she designed the holiday cards, Maud painted on all kinds of surfaces, including all over the small house in which she lived with Everett for three decades.

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia called her house “perhaps her greatest work of art.”

Her paintings documented a disappearing era of farming, fishing and village life in the province; they continue today to transmit a message of personal and creative resilience to new generations of viewers.

Her colorful, striking images of rural and seaside life are omnipresent in Nova Scotia — on coffee cups, cards, t-shirts, calendars and even in oversized frames along Halifax’s harbor front, which visitors are free to art-bomb.

Maud Lewis
St. Clair resident Pattie Hayes steps into a Maud Lewis artwork on the Halifax harbor. – Jim Bloch

The opening up of art

By showcasing her work alongside traditional masters, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has taken a significant step in breaking down the boundaries between folk art, which tends to be done by untrained artists, and fine art.

The museum’s unstated mission appears to be broadening the audience for art and making the practice of art as inclusive as possible.

A special exhibit this October, entitled “Folk/Funk,” disrupted the boundaries between art and craft. Another called “Here We Are: Black Canadian Contemporary Art” explored the sense of otherness that has accompanied the experience of being black in Canadian history and culture. An exhibit of art by individuals with autism attempted to re-set the boundaries between fine art and what is sometimes called outsider art; the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia regularly aids in this resetting by offering classes to artists with autism.

In short, the museum is redefining what art is, who is capable of doing it and how it can transform practitioners and viewers alike.

Jim Bloch is an award-winning freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. He writes about the environment, local politics, art, music, history and culture. Contact him at bloch.jim@gmail.com.

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