This post is part of our Muses series, in which we highlight people whose work has helped to build a more joyful world. Our Muses work with color, flowers, and curves, but make no mistake — they are as disruptive to the hierarchies that suppress joy as the bravest revolutionary. They are outsiders and iconoclasts, overlooked by the establishment and judged for failing to follow the “rules” of their field. Their stories show us how to be free in a world that often isn’t, and how joyous creativity can be can be a potent force for resilience, connection, and change.
It was the house that first caught my eye. A tiny thing covered in white shingles, not much bigger than a chicken coop, the door and window embellished with birds and bunches of flowers. And next to the door, a sign hanging slightly askew: “Paintings for sale”
I clicked through and was greeted by an explosion of color: folk-style paintings on every surface. A pair of whimsical Scottie dogs over the cupboard, butterflies ascending the kitchen walls, and most of all flowers. Flowers trailing up the stair rail, flowers on the furniture, flowers even on the hood over the stove.
It was a meager dwelling, but quite literally full of life. And the story of how it got that way is both tragic and inspiring — a lesson in the power of joy to sustain us even through great adversity.
Painting Joy: Maud Lewis and the Art of Resilience
Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis was born in 1903 in South Ohio, Nova Scotia. She was born with an unknown condition that left her small in stature and physically deformed. Her shoulders sloped, her chin rested on her chest, and she walked with a crooked gait. Over time, her condition developed into rheumatoid arthritis, stiffening her hands and making daily tasks difficult. She struggled with loneliness and quit school at 14, possibly to avoid the mocking of her peers.
Her mother Agnes introduced her to painting, and she began making Christmas cards to sell. She never had any formal art schooling, but developed a unique style inspired by the things she saw in her daily life: cats and flowers, birds and horses.
When she was in her early 30s, she lost both parents within two years of each other. Unable to support herself, she went to go live with an aunt. That same year she married Everett Lewis, a fish peddler. The story goes that she had answered an ad he had placed for a housekeeper, though she was unable to do much housework so Everett would be the one to do it. They would live together in his one-room cottage until her death.
an artful life
Maud continued to sell artworks and cards for 5 cents each, often accompanying Everett on his visits to customers. Meanwhile, she began to decorate their one-room cottage with her paintings, covering the wallpaper with tendrils and blossoms, even covering the windowpanes with bunches of tulips.
By all accounts, the Lewises lived in deep poverty. The cottage was barely 10 x 12 feet and had no indoor plumbing or electricity. Everett was reported to be miserly, taking the batteries out of the radio so Maud wouldn’t run them down by listening to it. Still, he supported her painting and often scrounged for half-used cans of paint she could use in her artwork. He also encouraged her to use other surfaces for her art, such as masonite and pulpboard.
As her condition progressed, she increasingly became housebound. But she continued to paint and sell her artworks until she died at age 67. She became more well-known later in life and began to receive commissions, including one from the Nixon White House. Yet she never sold a painting for more than $10 in her lifetime.
Lewis died of pneumonia, which may have been exacerbated by malnutrition. Her body was so small that she was buried in a child’s coffin.
painting a more joyful world
Despite her meager circumstances and physical constraints, Lewis’s work depicts a world that is unfailingly sunny. Fluffy, big-eyed cats in fields of tulips. A black truck in front of a yellow house with a red roof. (This painting was supposedly traded for a grilled cheese sandwich.) Sweet landscapes of sailboats with fluffy clouds in a blue sky. This mirrors her disposition, which was said to be joyful, optimistic, and charming. She was happiest with a paintbrush in her hand.
For Lewis, art was the ultimate tool of resilience. Painting gave her joy amid a life defined by adversity, and once she seized that joy, she never let go. Given a tiny one-room cottage and a paintbrush, she transformed her simple surroundings to be lush and exuberant. In the physical world, she faced countless constraints, but in the world she created with her brush, she was free.