What if Maud had a camera?

Maud Dowley (1903-1970) was a Canadian artist, from Nova Scotia, who lived a harsh life (in part due to her suffering from rheumatoid arthritis). She dedicated a big part of her life to painting, which seems to have been her greatest source of joy. I recently became aware of her work after watching the biopic Maudie, by director Aisling Walsh. After marrying Everett Lewis, Maud began selling her paintings, which she signed as ‘Maud Lewis‘. The movie is a romantic, yet not over-sentimental, portrayal of the couple’s lives, but it does manage to entice one’s curiosity about the real Maud and her artwork.

Although the movie is not an accurate account of her circumstances, for example suggesting that she started painting in her singular style after finding a can of paint in Everett’s tiny house where they both lived for more than 30 years, it gives us an idea of how her art became known: 

Maud’s luck turns around on a fateful afternoon when a sophisticated New Yorker comes knocking on her painted door. Sandra (played by Kari Matchett) expresses interest in Maud’s art and becomes her first collector, commissioning a larger painting for five dollars. As circumstances begin to improve for Maud with her new patron, she finds local fame in her seemingly simple paintings. She and Everett put out a “Paintings for Sale” sign on the road next to their home and display an array of her paintings in their yard. Her compact pictures of nature, cats, birds, Nova Scotia winter scenes, and sometimes figures, represent little windows into her world. source: hyperallergic

Maud Lewis House. Collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo by Steve Farmer. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The property was moved from its original location in the 1980s.

Sandra, who the movie portrays as the first patron to support Maud’s work, is a curious character, in the sense that it seems to be a way into the world of art brut (as Dubuffet decided to call it). As Leah Collins writes:

…her [Maud’s] very first patrons were Americans, and they capture that in the scenes with Sandra (Kari Matchett), who is the American who buys her work.
They don’t tell us that’s the case in the movie, but I know from my history dealing with the work that Maud Lewis’s first patrons were almost all Americans. And if you’ve ever gone and toured around rural Nova Scotia you’ll realize it’s like Cape Cod of the North. (laughs) There are lots of them!
They go there because they love the idyllic lifestyle, it’s a place where they can really get away from it all, and I think when they were introduced to Maud Lewis, her work became symbolic of the experience they were craving.
This is why we’re here! This is the type of thing we find when we come here!
Whether they thought it was high art or not is irrelevant, but the people who supported her work were people who saw her work as synonymous with the life experience that they sought and why they were in Nova Scotia. It was the embodiment of that.

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I found myself thinking: What if Maud had a camera? What would her work be like in silver-gelatin? And, in the end, is there anything like naïf photography? Maybe not; maybe the very thought of naivité permeating the photographic medium is an oxymoron. Can we really afford to be naïf when the medium we’re working with has such a technological presence? Is it even possible to let a photographic work evolve into its own corpus?

The what if question is an ungrateful one to make, but as a dreamer I can’t avoid it? How would Maud photograph herself, Everett, their animal family, the Nova Scotia winters… How would she photograph her paintings?

Art brut is generally understood as art produced by those who live outside the social contract, the reason it’s known in the anglo-saxon world as ‘outsider art’. Understanding what are the frames of society and what is the meaning of producing outside them is an overwhelming task to start with, for it raises a huge amount of questions, namely about essence, authenticity, ingenuity, spontaneity, contrasting to the demands of the capital that rules the art world. If ‘outsider art’ became a commodity is because it depicts something that the conventional art world either lost or has never achieved. Like Collins said, about Maud’s work, foreigners became attracted to it because “her work became symbolic of the experience they were craving”.

Maybe one of the reasons why photography escapes the realm of the outsider art if because its immediacy is very limited, but I’d say the biggest reason is its inaccessibility or its lack of appeal, for those who waved goodbye to the mechanism of this capitalist society.

And then there’s Lee Godie. Born on the same decade as Maud Lewis, Lee not only lived much longer (1908-1994), she also started to create late in life, when she was already in her 60’s. Lee was born in Chicago and her reputation is nothing similar to that of Maud’s. Apparently she was quite cantankerous and living in the city, often sleeping in the streets, she obviously stood out as an outsider. John Foster, collector of outsider art, speaks his mind about Lee’s work

Her paintings have always been collectible, but I believe it’s her self-portrait photography that she should be remembered for. Lee never used a hand-held camera, instead choosing to use a photo booth at the Chicago Trailways bus station. Many photos included props she found or bought at the local five-and-dime. Behind the drawn curtain of the photo booth, her intent was to change her persona for each photograph. Godie would often darken her face with charcoal or dirt, change clothes, and later—after the image was developed and fixed—hand color it with a pen to redden her lips or enhance her hair. Words or descriptions would also be added, all part of her larger mission to be identified as an artist—and a famous one at that. The photographs were often pinned or glued to her drawings or paintings, her way of adding a “bonus” to the buyer. Godie was keenly aware and took advantage of the photo booth process. She knew that before inserting her money, she could choose to get one 4” x 5” image, or four different poses on the same sheet. When Godie selected the four-pose photo, she would actually utilize the position of the photos as part of the overall concept […] Godie removed herself from the booth during shots 2 and 3—fully aware of the effect it would achieve to the overall composition. It was really quite brilliant.

Below a selection of Lee Godie’s photographic work.

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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