Trade Barriers, Diversity & On Being Naive

This is partly a film review and partly a commentary on life, art and programming. I’ve written it mostly to get my own thoughts straight.

About 2 years ago I was asked to help out on a film — a biopic of a Canadian naive or folk artist called Maud Lewis (1903–1970). Although I’m tech by trade my semi-professional sideline is painting and I’m a member of the Association of British Naive Artists which is how I got the gig. My job was to to help everyone, including the lead, do a good job representing Maud as a painter and we all worked together closely to do that.

Although I’d read the screenplay, I saw the film “Maudie” for the first time last night and the good news is it’s an excellent piece of work. I loved watching it. Go see it.

Playing a Poor Hand

Maud Lewis was an interesting figure who I must admit I‘d never heard of before the producer contacted me. She was a desperately poor, shy, plain woman with a severe lifelong and progressive physical disability. Rheumatoid arthritis limited her mobility and her ability to use her hands and was only going to get worse. She lived in a time before welfare and she had little family support. Basically, she was an outsider and she was screwed.

Despite this, she was a prolific painter and a good one. She was radical in her composition and use of colour and her pictures were vibrant and joyful. She became famous for her work and lived what appears to have been an extremely happy and creative life.

My question was how on earth did she manage that?

Although the director didn’t know it, I also have a progressive disability (multiple sclerosis), which gave me some insight and added motivation to do a decent job.

Trade Barriers

Naive = Self taught = Bad

Let’s step back and discuss what being a naive painter like Maud means.

The word naive has negative connotations. Many industries erect barriers to outsiders like the non-professional or self taught. Those barriers might be legal (licenses and certifications) or social (pejorative names like “naive” or “folk” for painters or “vanity published” for independent authors, or perhaps it’s just hinted the outsiders are genetically unsuited to the industry).

There are some jobs where barriers are a good thing — I’d prefer not to be operated on by a self-taught surgeon — but there are others where I think artificial barriers serve little purpose and are actively limiting.

  • In the creative industries (art, writing, music) the output is there for everyone to judge. Does it matter how it was achieved?
  • In fast-moving industries like technology you have to learn and re-learn constantly on the job because everything changes. A professional qualification from even 5 years ago might be useless. And, again, the output can just be judged; does it work or doesn’t it?

The “Right Way” is Exclusive and Limiting

From the photos I could get my hands on, it looked like Maud used oil paint — often marine paint she could get cheaply or free but seemingly only in limited colours — and she frequently painted on discarded wooden boards. She even used old sardine tins for palettes. I had to eat a whole load of tinned fish for us to try that out. Basically, she was picturesque but poor.

She also used techniques she partly devised herself that made it easier to paint with her limited mobility. She painted “wet on dry” which kept the colours clean and gave sharp lines but most importantly, I suspect, let her rest her hand on the board while she was painting if needed. That would be less painful and easier to control as she got older. She used pencil under-drawings and paper templates she made herself. Again, that would have been much easier physically and more consistent.

The interesting thing is most of the techniques that allowed her to paint despite poverty and disability are anathema to proper oil painters. Some are vetoed because it won’t last 100 years, others just because. The “right way” to paint in oils did not accommodate the poor or infirm. That kind of do-it-yourself nonsense was only for the naive.

Maud was excluded from standard practise and legitimate acceptance as a professional painter for multiple reasons

  • she couldn’t get formally educated or trained in art because of her position (which was a combination of her poverty, illness, family, gender etc..)
  • she couldn’t afford fancy kit or space
  • she couldn’t use the standard, rigid art techniques that were designed for the more able.

Nonetheless, despite a bad situation she managed to pursue a massively successful artistic career and live a happy life. How?

  • She taught herself by experimentation and reading and she worked out her own techniques that suited her.
  • She creatively made the best of the materials available to her, even where they were extraordinarily meagre (people and stuff).
  • She was prepared to take huge risks to improve her situation (she left a stifling but presently safe home for a very dubious new one) and stick with it no matter what.
  • She trusted her own judgment and her own style. She didn’t need society to approve of her. Although eventually society did love her it’s not obvious that added much to her happiness — or even her wealth since her husband just saved the money she earned.

Had she required acceptance from society she would have failed. Had she not been willing to teach herself she would have failed. Had she not striven to make the best of what she had (which was frankly crap) she would have failed. Had she not been prepared to take an enormous risk she would have failed.

We should stop calling her a folk artist and start calling her a bloody folk hero.

Takeaways for Other Pursuits

OK, I think there’s tonnes of stuff here I can take away for other areas — mostly tech since I’ve already embraced being a naive artist (I’m self taught and I make up my own techniques as I please).

So, if I were to choose to be a naive technologist what would I do?

  • Teach myself, experiment. If it works it works.
  • Don’t be overly bothered about other people’s opinions. Trust my own judgment. Be contrary if I want.
  • Make things up myself if I choose. I’m allowed to be different, to do things that are not traditional or standard that work for me.
  • Be very aware of my resources but stretch and build on them.

I think most of all Maud knew what she wanted and was prepared to do what it took to get there.

Maudie is out now in cinemas, it’s well worth catching it.

Incidentally, reverse engineering Maud Lewis was one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever done.