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Christmas with Maud Lewis

Maud Lewis has become one of Canada’s favourite folk artists, and her buoyant winter pictures of nature, pets, farm animals, and people at work and play are among her most charming. Her hands were twisted with rheumatoid arthritis, but Maud earned her living by painting Christmas cards and pictures and selling them from her tiny, gaily painted one-room house beside the highway near Digby, Nova Scotia.

Originally issued in 1997 and now available in this updated edition, Christmas with Maud Lewis paints a portrait of how this spirited woman celebrated the season in her life and art. Maud’s vision of Christmas embraces skaters sliding every which way, passengers leaning over the box of a horse-drawn sleigh, smiling oxen in their best harness, and bluebirds beside their snow-covered house. The paintings in Christmas with Maud Lewis are from the large collection of the Woolaver family.

Also by Lance Woolaver

Christmas with the Rural Mail

From Ben Loman to the Sea

Change of Tide

Metallic Sparrow

The Outlaw League

The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis (with Bob Brooks)

Maud’s Country (with Bob Brooks)

The Poor Farm

Brindley Town

Maud Lewis: World without Shadows

Maud Lewis: The Heart at the Door

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When Maud Lewis was living in Marshalltown, Digby County, in the 1950s, she was living the life of a recluse. She rarely ventured from her little wooden house by the side of the road; a sighting of Maud was as rare as a sighting of the eastern bluebird. It was not until the 1960s that Maud became famous as a folk artist — written up in the Toronto Star Weekly, photographed by Bob Brooks, featured on CBC television and she began to entertain visitors, admirers really, in the little house she had decorated.

In the 1950s I lived in the country village of Barton, a few miles down the road from Maud Lewis, and later Digby Town, where Maud had lived with her Aunt Ida. I had the opportunity to see Maud and her work more often than some, because my father, Phillip Woolaver, was then commissioning and collecting her paintings. In 1975, my mother, Shirley Woolaver, and I wrote an article on Maud’s life for Chatelaine, an article that featured Maud’s bright and joyful work.

I can’t say why my father began to collect Maud’s paintings. I do know my mother was not too keen on it, at least in the 1950s, because once he left the taxes on our house unpaid to pay for the half-dozen of Maud’s irregular little creations he had commissioned. And in those days, if your taxes weren’t paid, your name was published in the Digby Courier. It seems unlikely that Dad’s motive was financial gain, because he could have sold these paintings many times, but he never sold one. Our collection is still intact, and, to my knowledge, it is the only sizeable, original collection purchased directly from Maud Lewis not to be broken up, given away, or sold. Suffice it to say that Dad, Dr. Doug Lewis, of Digby, and a very few other collectors saw something that others didn’t, in those years a half-century past now, and while his collecting may have been a source of some controversy in our home at the beginning, it wasn’t for very long, and we are “some glad now,” as we say in Digby County.

I love Digby County very much. Everything that I have written, every book, play and film, has come from a few square miles of this lovely country in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. It may be that I am unable to judge the quality of Maud’s cheerful paintings because they summon up places and pastimes that I enjoyed, and which, happily for the children of Barton, Marshalltown, and Digby, are still there. I swam below the wharf Maud Lewis painted in “Fish for Sale.” The Brighton wharf is now largely gone, and the one in Barton has altogether disappeared, but children still swim in the coves along St. Mary’s Bay, and mackerel and herring are still caught in the weirs and iced and sold by fish peddlers, and so it should be. I tobogganed down that hill in Acacia Valley, so quick and crisp I nearly flew helplessly into the waters of the Joggins. How fortunate we were in Digby to have been granted Maud Lewis as our artist, to have our spring blossoms, our green summers, our fall colours, and our white Christmases recorded by her.

The Christmas and winter works in this book fall roughly into two categories, in accordance with the great division of Maud’s life. She lived the first half of her life with her cherished parents in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. It was there, with her mother, Agnes (Germaine) Dowley, that Maud learned to paint and began with the painting of Christmas cards. Many of these cards are signed “Maud Dowley” or “Maud Kathleen Dowley” and are reproduced here for the first time. The cards and scallop shells reproduced here date from the 1920s forward.

Maud moved to Digby when Agnes Dowley died in 1937. The second category of Maud Lewis works herein dates from after her marriage to Everett Lewis, the fish peddler, with whom she came to live in Marshalltown in 1938. These include some Christmas cards and household items, but the major part of this second category of works consists of the paintings my father commissioned from Maud and Everett Lewis, and which were first reproduced in Chatelaine in 1975. Again, with the exception of that magazine publication, many of these paintings have never been reproduced before. Two of my favourite Maud Lewis paintings are portraits of my brother, Max Woolaver, and my sister, Pearl Woolaver, in the context of our family. One shows the interior of our home on Second Avenue in Digby, and the other shows the exterior of our farmhouse in Bear River. These are unique paintings, and Maud did not paint versions of them for other collectors. In the painting of Max, he is still a baby, rocking before the fireplace in the wooden cradle carved by Chief John Pictou of the Bear River First Nations Reserve. In the portrait of Pearl, she is a little girl in a bright green jacket and red scarf, coming out to bring the Christmas presents in. As valued as these paintings are by our family, they are not, I suspect, among the first rank of Maud Lewis works. Maud was happy to fulfil commissions, and she often painted, as her register records, specifically requested scenes and portraits, but her finest works came, as every artist’s have from the beginning of time, from her own spirit, an “oncommon” one.