The girl who talked to the train whistle 

By : Fernando Neubarth
Médico e escritor. Especialista em Clínica Médica e Reumatologia. Chefe do Serviço de Reumatologia do Hospital Moinhos de Vento. Presidente da Sociedade Brasileira de Reumatologia/SBR 2006-2008. Presidente do Conselho Consultivo da SBR.

10 November, 2023
Cite as:
Neubarth F. The girl who talked to the train whistle | Global Rheumatology. Vol 4/ Jul - Dic [2023] Available from:

"Advances in science allow for better prospects for those with rheumatic diseases. A different reality from that experienced by artist Maud Lewis, who transformed her horizons through art."

Views 197Views


This is an open-access article distributed by the terms of the Creative Common Attribution License (CC-BY NC-4). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forms is permitted, provided the original author(a) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with this terms.

E- ISSN: 2709-5533
Vol 4 / Jul - Dic [2023]


The girl who talked to the train whistle 

Autor: Fernando Neubarth: Especialista em Clínica Médica e Reumatologia.


Cite: Neubarth F. The girl who talked to the train whistle | Global Rheumatology. Vol 4/ Jul - Dic [2023] Available from:

Received date: October 15th / 2023
Accepted date: November 9th / 2023
Published Date: November 10th / 2023

Canadian Maud Lewis was born in Yarmouth Hospital on March 7, 1903. Raised in the small nearby village of South Ohio, she lived most of her adult life near Digby in the village of Marshallstown. The distance between the two cities is just over a hundred kilometers, stretching along the Bay of Fundy on Nova Scotia's most remote coast.

From the garden of her house, the girl could see the train tracks that ran between Digby and Yarmouth, two of the largest cities in the southwest of the peninsula bathed by the Atlantic Ocean. She waved at the trains, and it was a joy when the drivers responded and whistled back. From a distance, her deformities were not visible and thus dialogue between her and the world around her became possible.

Despite severe and disabling juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she lived for art.

The exact onset of her illness is unknown. In a photo at four years old, she appears to be a healthy child, but a few years later another photo already shows typical signs of the illness; the disease has brought Maud's chin closer to her neck, and she hides her affected hands.

Chronic childhood arthritis, like that of Maud Lewis, still has no known cause. Immunological, genetic and infectious factors are involved. It is known that there is a certain familial tendency and that some external factors, such as certain viral and bacterial infections, emotional stress and joint trauma, can act as triggers for the disease. Currently, the earliest and most appropriate, multidisciplinary treatment is focused on controlling the disease and on medications that help reduce inflammation, improve pain and maintain functional abilities. The goal is to alter the progression of the disease and minimize impairment of normal physical and emotional growth and development.

Maud did not complete her studies, despite being sagacious and interested. The other children ridiculed her so much that the 20-minute journey between home and school was even more painful due to the uncontained tears. The shy girl who was the target of bullying from her classmates started to stay at home with her mother; From her, she received art lessons and together they made greeting cards to sell. This isolation and encouragement of creativity influenced Lewis's later work as a folk artist. She not only learned to paint and draw, she also began to live with loneliness in creative activities.

As the disease progressed, Lewis became more disabled. Arthritis stunted her growth and, throughout her life, Maud remained the size of a child. Her shoulders became abnormally hunched, her back was curved and twisted, and rheumatoid nodules deformed her hands. She used her less affected left hand to support her arm so she could paint with her right hand.

Maud Lewis's work shows nothing of her hardships or the pain of arthritis. Instead, she depicts a sunny world of oxen and flowers, bluebirds, cats and butterflies.

These are memories of the Nova Scotia countryside of Maud's childhood, marked strongly by the seasons and her imagination. Born Maud Dowling, she was married at age 34 to Everett Lewis, a traveling fish salesman. They lived together in a small one-room house measuring three meters square with a mezzanine, but without plumbing or electricity. During the first few years of their married life, they would go out in Everett's car; Maud selling her greeting cards and her husband selling fish. As the arthritis progressed, this became more difficult. She stayed at home painting and advertised her art with an ornate sign in full view of anyone passing by on the road.

Because of her appearance, Maud Lewis suffered prejudice for the rest of her life. Her biographer, writer Lance Gerard Woolaver, who is also from Digby County, reports that as a child he compared Lewis to the witch from Hansel and Gretel, and would hide in a ditch if he saw her coming up the road. Only later, as an adult, was he able to appreciate the beauty of Maud's art, overcoming prejudice and realizing how enlightened she was.

In addition to the paintings, Lewis decorated pieces of the house, dish towels, dustpans, shells and almost every surface of the little house inside and out. And he drew flowers on the windowpanes. People who bought her work told other people about her. She began to appear in newspaper and magazine articles and on TV programs. His painted works, including the decorated little house, are now part of the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. In an interview, asked how she managed all this with a painful and debilitating illness, Lewis replied, smiling:

– As long as I have a brush in front of me, I'll be fine.

Maud died on July 30, 1970, at the age of 67, in poverty, although already known and with national fame. She overcame severe physical challenges to create a unique artistic style. Although she rarely left her small home, her works traveled to all parts of the globe and, in the decades following her death, she became an iconic figure, a symbol of Nova Scotia, a beloved character in imagination and popular art. She is one of Canada's most renowned artists, the subject of countless monographs, novels, plays, documentaries and even a feature film (Maudie, from 2016, starring actress Sally Hawkins).

The girl who was remains in that distant space in her garden, waving to the passing trains. Her dreams, however, embarked and continue. The vision of the joyful images of nature and country life that enchanted her and alleviated her suffering maintains the beneficent power of a balm for the eyes of the world.

enviar Envía un artículo