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Art: Maud Lewis via Artnet.
The Maud Lewis painting “Black Truck” was once traded for grilled cheese sandwiches. Recently, it fetched 10 times its estimate at auction.

Maud Lewis was a self-taught folk artist in Canada, the kind of person no one takes seriously until they burst onto the world stage. Something similar happened to one of her paintings, “Black Truck.”

Sydney Page reports at the Washington Post, “Like clockwork, John Kinnear and his wife, Audrey, would go to the same restaurant each afternoon and sit at the table by the circular window. Kinnear would order only one thing: a grilled cheese sandwich.

“ ‘I could not convince Mr. Kinnear to have anything else,’ said Irene Demas, 69, who owned the Mediterranean restaurant The Villa with her husband Tony in Ontario for about a decade in the 1970s.

“The sandwich, priced at $1.95, was made with fresh bread from a local Italian bakery, aged cheddar cheese and a substantial smear of butter to make it perfectly crispy — exactly how Kinnear liked it.

“Kinnear, an artist, lived around the corner from The Villa, and he and his wife, both in their 50s, made it their regular hangout for several years in the early 1970s. The Kinnears, who are no longer alive, developed a close friendship with the Demases.

“ ‘My husband made a deal with them to trade food for art,’ said Demas, adding that Kinnear would often show up for lunch clutching a painting or two under his arm. ‘We needed art for our walls, and he needed to eat every day.’

“Demas said their arrangement with Kinnear wasn’t unusual back then.

“ ‘In the ’70s, it was different. We didn’t think so much about ourselves; we thought about our neighbors and how we could help each other out,’ she said. ‘They were very generous, and in return we did what we could for them.’

“Still, Demas and her husband, who is now 90, never imagined that a painting Kinnear traded them for a simple sandwich would one day be worth a small fortune.

“While Kinnear mainly brought his own work to the restaurant, he once arrived with several colorful paintings by an artist from Nova Scotia named Maud Lewis. …

“Lewis was a poor painter in Eastern Canada who could barely afford supplies, and she had suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis since she was a teen. Kinnear read about her in a 1965 newspaper article with the headline ‘The Little Old Lady Who Painted Pretty Pictures.’

“As a fellow artist, Kinnear was touched by her story and began sending her supplies, including brushes and paints. In exchange for his kindness, Lewis gave Kinnear several paintings. She typically sold her artwork at the side of the road for $10 per piece.

“Demas said the paintings — which Kinnear propped up on chairs in the restaurant that day — had a playful quality that intrigued her.

“ ‘I had never seen anything like that,’ she said. One in particular, featuring a black truck, ‘just jumped out at me.’ …

“The Demases had no idea that Lewis, who died in 1970, would become one of Canada’s foremost folk artists, despite never achieving wealth or prominence in her lifetime.

“Alan Deacon, an expert on Lewis’s work who authenticates her paintings, said her art skyrocketed in value after her death. …

“About a year ago, as the couple downsized their home, they decided to appraise a few items — including the black truck painting and the letters that authenticated Kinnear’s relationship with Lewis. …

“First, the Demases offered the artwork to their two children, both of whom urged their parents to sell it and enjoy the profits in their retirement. The couple decided it was time to part with the painting. …

“In a virtual auction on May 14, the painting sold for $272,548 — more than 10 times its assessed value. The letters fetched more than $54,500.

“ ‘I was just speechless,’ said Demas.

“Ethan Miller, chief executive officer at the auction house, was also stunned.

“ ‘Off the charts is an understatement,’ he said. ‘I think everybody saw in this painting exactly what Maud intended, which is brightness, optimism and fun. …

“ ‘Just given the heaviness of this era that we’ve managed to survive, suddenly someone mentions a grilled cheese sandwich and a celebrated artist that has overcome physical adversity,’ Miller said. ‘All of those things combined is as irresistible as a grilled cheese sandwich.’

“The buyer, a Canadian man who asked to stay anonymous to protect his privacy, said that was precisely what propelled him to purchase the painting. … ‘I’m not an art collector by any means.’

“The evening before the auction, he and his wife watched the 2016 film Maudie, which chronicles Lewis’s life. After learning her story of resilience, he wanted the piece.”

More at the Post, here. And if you have never seen the lovely Sally Hawkins film about the artist, Maudie, please check it out here.

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