Canada's Grandma Moses

Folk artist Maud Lewis's house was a canvas.

Forget all those fancy interior-design shows on television; nothing they've done can hold a candle to this. Every square inch of this house - the doors, window sills, walls, staircase - is decorated with brightly painted flowers, birds, and butterflies.

It resembles an illuminated manuscript writ large.

Poke your head through the doorway of the house and you'll discover that the designer didn't stop at decorating the structure, but lavished her art on the furnishings as well: the big old cookstove, the tea tray, a humble canister, and so on.

Not a patch escaped her compulsive, creative eye.

Maud Lewis's Painted House - seen as a treasure as well as a popular tourist attraction - is on permanent display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

This isn't just a reconstructed period room; it's an entire cabin. Made of wood, roughly 12 by 13 feet in size and one story-and-a-loft high, the structure never fails to startle and charm visitors who aren't expecting to stumble upon a house inside a museum.

The structure is the handiwork of Nova Scotia's folk artist extraordinaire Maud Lewis, who died in 1970.

She was a prolific artist; it's been estimated that Mrs. Lewis produced hundreds of paintings during her 30-year career.

With no formal training in art, she simply painted what she saw around her - boats in the harbor, joyful couples in carriages on country roads, children going to school, horses, deer, oxen, birds, and flowers.

Although her works now fetch thousands of dollars when they come up for sale, and images of her cats and oxen appear on coffee mugs, aprons, cloth bags, and T-shirts, Lewis spent most of her adult life in rural poverty and relative obscurity. She and her husband, Everett, lived in the tiny cabin without running water or electricity.

During her lifetime, the house sat on the side of a country road near Digby, Nova Scotia. From her chair near the window, Lewis worked and watched for tourists who stopped to buy her hand-drawn Christmas cards for about 25 cents apiece and her colorful paintings for a few dollars each.

Now her work can be found at the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, as well as in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. And her hometown of Digby sponsored a Maud Lewis Folk Festival earlier this month, celebrating the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Television crews discovered Lewis a few years before her death, but fame had little effect on her daily life. She continued to live in the cabin with her husband until her death.

The story of the rescue of her house is as long and winding as one of the country lanes that Lewis loved to paint.

In the early 1980s, after the house became vacant following the death of Lewis's husband, a group of citizens grew concerned about its rapid deterioration, and purchased it with the aim of preservation.

In 1984, the house was sold to the province of Nova Scotia and turned over to the care of Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Due to lack of funds and other complications, it was 1996 before AGNS could begin the lengthy restoration project.

The house now sits proudly in the corner of a large wing of the museum surrounded by dozens of Lewis's paintings.

This little shack, transformed by love and wonder into a work of art, does what Lewis intended her art to do: charm, delight, and intrigue.

It's also an inspiring example of how much can be done with just a little paint and ingenuity - an object lesson for even the humblest of home decorators.

For more information, see:

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's website for Maud Lewis at 4pcml1.htm. Telephone: (902) 424-7542.

'Maud Lewis: An Illuminated Life,' by Lance Woolaver; Bob Brooks, photographer (Down East Books, $24.95).

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