Two paintings by a beloved Nova Scotia folk artist have vanished. Can they have gone far?

Someday within the early Nineteen Fifties, Van Davis Odell pulled off Freeway 1 in Marshalltown, N.S., to make what would show a fortuitous buy. The Manhattan businesswoman was driving round with two mates looking for crafts and antiques, and was attracted by a black signal on the facet of a small, white shack that learn “Work on the market.”

Inside, a lady with gnarled palms and a candy method confirmed the ladies work of cheery and charming scenes: rows of kittens, pairs of long-lashed oxen and horse-drawn sleighs winding by means of the countryside. The artist was Maud Lewis, now thought to be one in every of Canada’s biggest folks painters. However on today, Odell paid a mere $5 every for a number of items and drove them 10 minutes down the street to the cottage the place she summered, in Smiths Cove.

Seagull Cottage was one in every of 27 rustic bungalows with panoramic views of the Bay of Fundy, constructed on the identical non-public street because the Harbourview Inn, a Victorian-era lodge whose pool, eating room and dance pavilion catered to well-heeled vacationers fleeing the summer season warmth of New York and Boston.

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Odell hung two of the work—one in every of oxen in spring, the opposite of oxen in winter—on both facet of her bed room window, and there they remained in picket frames for greater than six a long time. Then, in the future between September 2020 and Could 2021, each vanished. Nothing else was taken. A 3rd Lewis portray of oxen hung untouched on one other wall of the bed room.

With its themes of optimism and overcoming hardship, Lewis’s artwork has steadily climbed in worth. She achieved nationwide recognition just a few years earlier than her demise in 1970, however by the mid-Nineties—spurred by an Artwork Gallery of Nova Scotia exhibit that toured the nation—her items have been promoting within the low hundreds. In 2016, the biopic Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins as Lewis and Ethan Hawke as her laconic husband Everett, stirred worldwide curiosity in Lewis’s work, pushing costs into the five-figure vary. (One character within the movie, a benevolent American artwork fanatic, is a composite based mostly partly on Odell.) Odell’s stolen work have been considered price about $20,000 every. However in November, a Lewis portray offered for $67,250, essentially the most thus far for one in every of her items.

“There’s simply one thing about the best way that she places her footage collectively, and her extraordinary manner with color, that make these works simply vibrate with optimistic vitality,” says Sarah Milroy, chief curator of the McMichael Canadian Artwork Assortment in Kleinburg, Ont., which not too long ago wrapped up a touring Lewis exhibit.

The stolen paintings are similar to the ones depicted here: (left) Team of Oxen in Spring, 1960s; and (right) Team of Oxen in Winter, 1960s (Courtesy of Art Gallery of Nova Scotia/Collection of CFFI Ventures Inc. as collected by John Risley; Courtesy of Art Gallery of Nova Scotia/Private collection)

The stolen work are much like those depicted right here: (left) Crew of Oxen in Spring, Nineteen Sixties; and (proper) Crew of Oxen in Winter, Nineteen Sixties (Courtesy of Artwork Gallery of Nova Scotia/Assortment of CFFI Ventures Inc. as collected by John Risley; Courtesy of Artwork Gallery of Nova Scotia/Non-public assortment)

Seagull Cottage is now owned by Odell’s daughter, Lynn, however it was a lady who has rented the property for years who first seen the naked partitions within the bed room. There have been no indicators of a break-in, so she known as the caretaker, Darren Snair, a former proprietor of the Harbourview Inn who lives in close by Digby. Had he eliminated them for safekeeping?

Snair hadn’t, and checked with native cleaners who for years had tended to Seagull and neighbouring cottages. They’d seen nothing suspicious, both; nor had the occupants of the cottage subsequent door. “Who would do such a factor on this small group?” asks Snair. “Sadly, there’s nothing to go on. Who is aware of why, what, who?”

His bewilderment is shared all through the Smiths Cove space, the place many long-time seasonal guests from the U.S. are on a first-name foundation with the native residents. Some have recognized one another for generations, sharing delight of their connection to Lewis and her hard-scrabble story. Associates of Lynn Odell, now 76 and dealing with well being issues, say the work related her to reminiscences of her Nova Scotia summers, when she realized to swim and sail.

Beneath the confusion, although, is an undercurrent of suspicion. Few outdoors Smiths Cove would remember that the work hung within the cottage, native folks level out. What’s extra, the probability of a thief who understands the issue of promoting stolen artwork making a trek to the Fundy shore for a few $20,000 items appear low: Lewis’s works are gaining worth, however the danger nonetheless outweighs the potential reward.

“These aren’t going to point out up at public sale,” says Ray Cronin, writer of a e book about Lewis and former CEO of the Artwork Gallery of Nova Scotia. “Any artwork vendor would see these and immediately name the police.”

Honey Shields is a long-time buddy of Lynn Odell who has owned a cottage in Smiths Cove for 31 years. A fellow New Yorker, she has been serving to Odell along with her affairs, and whereas it pains Shields to assume anybody locally is linked to the theft, she acknowledges the prospect has crossed folks’s minds. “I belief everyone there,” she says. “I hope they catch them, and I hope it’s nobody we all know.”

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The RCMP, nevertheless, don’t appear overly centered on the native space. Their investigation would have included checking with neighbours, says spokesperson Cpl. Chris Marshall, however in December they appealed to the general public for ideas and recently have been following up on these directing them to on-line auctions and marketplaces the place similar-looking Lewis items are offered. Nonetheless, Marshall acknowledges that the motive for the theft will not be financial. “On this a part of the world, a Maud Lewis portray is one thing any person might need to maintain as a consequence of their cultural significance,” he observes. “It’s very potential the individual that took them would need to maintain them.”

For now, that may be straightforward. Greg Metcalf, a present co-owner of the Harbourview Inn, notes that current summers in Smiths Cove have been quiet as a consequence of pandemic restrictions, leaving a scarcity of eyes and ears that little question labored to the thief’s benefit. “Someday they’ll simply flip up in somebody’s home,” he predicts. “Somebody will die and there can be these two Maud Lewis work within the inheritance.”

This text seems in print within the April 2022 concern of Maclean’s journal with the headline, “A case for the Maud squad.” Subscribe to the month-to-month print journal here.

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