A painting by a renowned Canadian folk artist, traded to two London restaurateurs decades ago for grilled cheese sandwiches, is hitting the auction block – for real money this time.
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The piece by the late Maud Lewis, a celebrated Nova Scotia folk painter, belongs to Tony and Irene Demas, the former owners of The Villa, a restaurant at Richmond Street and Queens Avenue that later became Anthony’s Seafood Bistro.
The painting of a black truck came into their hands five decades ago through London artist John Kinnear, who would come in for lunch every day and sit at the same table at the front of the restaurant, Irene Demas said. He always had the same order.
“Mr. Kinnear was kind of a picky eater. His favourite was grilled cheese sandwiches. That’s what he had every single day. He wouldn’t have anything else,” she said.
He’d sold some of his own paintings to the couple before – including one of Jumbo the elephant – but one day he dropped by with a portfolio of six or eight unframed paintings by the Nova Scotia folk artist.
Demas’s husband Tony, who worked the front of the house, came back to the kitchen to fetch her, Demas said.
“They were very childlike paintings on boards. I was really surprised because it was just so different from what he was doing. I had never seen anything like it,” she said. “The one that really caught my eye was this little black truck. It was bright and it had lots of yellow and flowers in the field.”
Kinnear and the couple brokered a deal, trading the Lewis painting and three letters by the artist in exchange for a steady supply of his daily staple.
To be fair, they were pretty good grilled cheese sandwiches, Demas said.
“It was the ’70s and everyone was making grilled cheese with the processed cheese slices, but our grilled cheese used nice cheese and whole grain bread,” she said. “Downtown London was a different place back then. . . . All the businesspeople supported each other. We made trades with all sorts of artists and other businesspeople.
“They would support us and we would support them any way we can.”
The Lewis painting hung in their son’s bedroom throughout his childhood, Demas said. Now that their children are grown, the Demas family felt it was time to unload some of the art they’ve collected over the years and use the money for other things.
The Kinnear-Lewis letters and the painting are being auctioned separately by Miller and Miller Auctions in New Hamburg on May 14.
And with the recent popularity of Lewis’s work, with some fetching more than $20,000 at auction, the painting is expected to sell for more than a bunch of grilled cheese sandwiches this time around.
“Like so many folk artists, it’s truly the story of the artist that drives the demand for the art,” said auctioneer Ethan Miller. “It’s very unusual to see a category that has risen in value as quickly as Maud has. I think it’s the perfect storm of factors. There’s so much in the world that makes us want to pay attention to the situation that Maud Lewis was in and what she did to overcome adversity.”
Lewis – who was born with birth defects and had severe arthritis affecting her fingers – painted for decades but became famous in the ’60s, largely due to a Star Weekly magazine article about her, said Alan Deacon, an expert on Lewis’s work who met her three times and bought some of her work back then.
Her work has risen in popularity in the last decade, after Maudie – a biopic movie starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke – and recent exhibitions of her art, Deacon said.
“We’ve seen these paintings basically rise from $5,000 15 years ago to now, where $20,000 is the new $5,000,” Miller said.
The steep price tag on Lewis’s work stands in contrast to the austere conditions they were made. Lewis, who lived in poverty, didn’t buy her own materials and depended on found items donated from fans. Kinnear was a supporter of Lewis’s work, Deacon said.
“Kinnear ended up sending her primed masonite boards, paints and brushes and in return, sometimes she’d send him the finished product,” Deacon said.
The Demas’s painting is particularly unique, Deacon said. Lewis was a serial painter who revisited the same subjects in her art, including cats, oxen, winter scenes and covered bridges. The black truck pieces came about in the mid-to-late 60s, the final years of her life, Deacon said.
“As far as I know, I don’t think one of these truck paintings have ever come up at auction. In that sense, it makes it more special,” he said.