Maxwell Mays in front of one of his paintings at his home in Coventry in 2006
By Bill Van Siclen
Journal arts writer
Maxwell Mays, a Providence-born painter whose whimsical depictions of Rhode Island made him one of the state's best-known artists and who combined a playful folk-art style with an encyclopedic knowledge of local history, died Monday at age 91.
A family spokesman said Mays, who had been in ill health for the past few years, died peacefully at his home in the Greene section of western Coventry.
In a career that spanned more than six decades, Mays painted nearly every inch of Rhode Island, from the bustling docks of Newport Harbor to the small towns and villages of South County to the grand Federal Style mansions of Providence's Benefit Street.
At the same time, Mays happily acknowledged that he wasn't much interested in modern life. Instead, he was fascinated by history -- particularly the history of his native New England -- often spending weeks digging up information on everything from geography and architecture to genealogy and politics before embarking on one of his detail-filled paintings.
A Maxwell May's painting depicts houses on the water at Pawtuxet Village.
Despite the exhaustive research that often went into his work, May never intended his paintings to be seen as visual history lessons. A gifted raconteur as well as a talented artist, he was essentially a storyteller who used his bright, child-like canvases to spin tales -- some true, some embellished with a wry sense of humor -- about his beloved home state.
Though Mays' work is often compared to that of so-called "naïve" artists like Grandma Moses, Mays' himself bristled at such comparisons. "I don't know where they get that naïve stuff," he complained in a 1998 interview. "It was invented by art people who needed a word for artists who didn't have any formal training. That's not what I do."
Instead, Mays said, his goal was to "capture a sense of delight -- the feeling we all have as children of looking at something that gives us delight."