The film Maudie is every bit as magical, hypnotic and heartwarming as the child-like paintings of rural Nova Scotia by artist Maud Lewis, whose life and work inspired the movie, released last week. Her art, depicting cows, cats, horses and fishing villages, prompted Sally Hawkins, who plays her, to say: “There’s this beautiful humour that comes out of her work and this lovely sense of joy.”
It is that sense of innocence and wonder that I felt while I explored Lewis’s Nova Scotia. This is a salty, rugged landscape full of forests and circled by coastline, with snug harbours, clinking boats and relaxed, friendly people – a folksy kind of world to big-city dwellers. This province is often called Canada’s Ocean Playground because you are never far from the coastline. There are also more than 5,000 lakes amid a population of fewer than a million people, yet it remains something of a mystery to British travellers.
Lewis lived her whole life about an hour’s drive from her birthplace in the community of South Ohio and there is a beautiful replica of the house in which she painted and sold her work in Marshalltown, a rural area west of Digby. To get to Digby most people fly into Halifax and drive the 2½ hours across the Maritime province but, for me, a far more dramatic way to arrive is on the MV Fundy Rose. This is the car ferry over the Bay of Fundy from Saint John (the second-biggest city in the neighbouring province of New Brunswick) and it takes in the sprawling western coastline that inspired Lewis’s work.
The tiny, one-room clapboard house (11585 Highway 217) that she shared with her husband Everett (played by Ethan Hawke in the film) is adorned outside with her bright and colourful art alongside the “Paintings For Sale” sign that she used when selling her canvasses for C$5 (£3) by the roadside from 1945 until close to the end of her life in 1970 – when she was selling them for marginally more. In May 2017 her Portrait of Eddie Barnes and Ed Murphy, Lobster Fishermen, which was found in a New Hamburg thrift shop, sold for C$45,000.
To me, Digby’s main street is reminiscent of British fishing villages in the 1980s, replete with trinket shops, movie rental stores, ice-cream parlours and dozens of fish restaurants – with harbour views – selling colossal lobster sandwiches doused in cream and butter. I ventured up the road and came across Annapolis Royal, which is inhabited by painters and writers who are inspired by Lewis and whose work is displayed at the ArtsPlace Gallery.
But another, much wilder, side of Nova Scotia is a mere 40 minutes’ drive away. Kejimkujik national park (free admission in 2017), which the locals call Keji, is a vast landscape of lush forests, meandering rivers and crystal-clear lakes. Keji’s canoe routes had been used by First Nations people – the Mi’kmaq – for thousands of years as they travelled between the Bay of Fundy and the Atlantic coast. Now it is used by families taking outback camping trips up the lakes.
I left the park and took a short drive to the coastal town of Liverpool to stay at the Quarterdeck Beachside Villas and Grill (doubles from £110 room-only). This oceanfront retreat is one of Nova Scotia’s hidden gems, thanks to its mile of pure white sand. Driving behind a horse-drawn cart and with the greenery all around me, I felt as though I was in Lewis’s Fall Scene With Red Cart painting.
I headed to Hackett’s Cove on St Margaret’s Bay, a working cove for lobster fishermen, many of whom still wear the same orange waterproof dungarees depicted in Lewis’s paintings of them. The cove was full of brightly coloured boats and the shoreline was dotted with aged-but-sturdy shacks that store their gear and provide them shelter.
I stopped for the night in St Margaret’s Bay, at Bayview, a contemporary cottage built on the timbers of an old sailing ship and which is owned by Sheila and Bill Bean – who I found on homeaway.com (double £138). The cottage overlooks the North Atlantic. Out on the deck, in between studying photographs of Lewis at work and sipping local wine, I spotted seals, porpoise, deer, eagles and osprey.
Bill took me on his boat to cruise the islands of St Margaret’s Bay, and the houses we saw were identical to those in Lewis’s paintings: simple one-storey white clapboard boxes with red roofs. But now these rustic cottages sit alongside the colossal mansions that are becoming increasingly prominent around the province as more people catch on to the lifestyle that can be enjoyed here for comparatively little.
Bill pointed me towards a licensed cafe and bike shop in an old train station named Bike & Bean, where I rented a bike to explore the Rails to Trails pathway. On the Atlantic coast near St Margaret’s Bay is Peggy’s Cove, which features in one of Lewis’s most famous paintings. What I found was a higgledy-piggledy fishing village of cottages and huts strewn on the rocks. It is a popular tourist destination due to its famous lighthouse and is surrounded by gift shops and galleries, the best of which is Hags On The Hill, a co-operative artisan market.
My road trip ended in Halifax, Nova Scotia’s capital. In 1984, the province bought Maud Lewis’s house, and installed it at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (adults £7.30, 6-17s £3, under 5s free). The house itself is a work of art with seemingly every surface painted with bright, colourful flowers and butterflies. The gallery currently has an exhibition of 57 of Lewis’s paintings.
On Bill Bean’s recommendation, I went to Bearly’s House of Blues & Ribs where artists (visual and performance) hang out. Party band the Mellotones were playing to a packed house – putting on a show they’ve played every Thursday for the past decade. The buzz reminded me of an early scene in Maudie when Lewis ventures into the Digby dancehall as a young woman, to be wowed by the dancing and the drinking.
Comedian Catherine Robertson, who runs the shows, bought me an Oland Export. “Bearly’s has some of the best live shows in Halifax and the most unique vibe of any live venue I’ve performed in,” she shouted over the music. “It attracts all walks of life and everyone is amazingly friendly. Lately, I’ve been meeting a lot of Maud Lewis tourists. They find themselves at Bearly’s, which is fitting. It’s her talent and warmth that resonate so much with people, and Bearly’s epitomises that.”
I am reminded of something Lewis once said: “I ain’t much for travelling … as long as I have a brush in my hand and a window in front of me, I’m all right.”
Having shared the view from her window for four days, I can see her point.
• Accommodation was provided by The Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa (doubles from £70 room only). For more information on the region visit novascotia.com
James Mullinger is a writer, comedian and editor-in-chief of The Maritime Edit, a quarterly celebrating the wit, modesty and wisdom of Atlantic Canada