Filming the Folk Artist-Genius: The "Documentation" of Maud Lewis
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In this thesis I critically analyze the ways in which the work of Nova Scotian artist Maud Lewis circulates within the categories of “fine art” and “Folk art” by examining three documentary films that deal with her life and work. My aim is to draw attention to Lewis’s current status in Canada as an artistic genius –an individual of seemingly exceptional talent who is also a Folk artist – that is, paradoxically, a “Folk artist-genius.” As vehicles through which to explore the construction of Maud Lewis and the concept of the Folk artist-genius I examine three films about Maud Lewis produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the National Film Board (NFB): The Once-Upon-A-Time World of Maud Lewis (CBC, 1965), Maud Lewis: A World Without Shadows (NFB, 1976) and The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis (NFB, 1998). Lewis exemplifies the qualities identified with the Folk, including geographic isolation, rusticity, simplicity, closeness to nature, industriousness and innocence. Yet, while she is thoroughly imbued with Folkishness, she is simultaneously viewed as the artist-genius, an individualized and mythologized character of sublime talent. Her originality, prodigy, virtuosity and spirituality are hailed as indicative of her genius, in the expression of which she is perceived to have overcome ordinary relations to the material world – social seclusion, physical disability and poverty. This thesis explores the paradoxical conflation of the concepts of the “Folk” and the “artist-genius” in the figure of Lewis, an under-analyzed yet superlative example of this phenomenon. Lewis, as Folk artist-genius, navigates between these two domains; she possesses the qualities of the traditional artistic “master,” but remains representative of the quintessential Folk, at once transcending and “typical” of the rustic Nova Scotian people. This is a seemingly impossible position to occupy; by the very definition of “Folk,” the concept of a “Folk artist-genius” should not exist, yet cultural institutions and agents unproblematically hail Lewis as such.