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London, Ont., man's 1960s letters from Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis up for auction

Six letters that a London, Ont., man received from Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis after he began writing her in 1965 are up for auction, and his daughter says they're a testament to her late father's love of art and desire to help others in need.

Moved by 1965 newspaper profile, John Kinnear wrote to Lewis, sent her art supplies

Sheila Kinnear with some of her father's abstract oil paintings at her home in London, Ont. John Kinnear exchanged letters with Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis. He read about her in a newspaper profile and sent her art supplies. Their correspondence started in 1965 and continued until Lewis's death in 1970.
Sheila Kinnear sits with some of her father John Kinnear's abstract oil paintings at her home in London, Ont. John exchanged letters with Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis after reading about her in a newspaper profile. Their correspondence started in 1965 and continued until Lewis's death in 1970. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

John Kinnear was motivated by a heartfelt desire to help when he sat down in his London, Ont., home to write a letter to Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis. 

It was 1965 and Kinnear — an artist himself — had just read a profile of Lewis in Star Weekly magazine, which was included in his weekend edition of the London Free Press. 

The story chronicled a talented artist unmotivated by fame or fortune, living a hardscrabble existence in poverty and isolation in rural Marshalltown outside Digby, N.S., with her husband Everett. She painted colourful, cheerful rural scenes and pictures of animals. She also had debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and lived in a small one-room house with no running water or electricity.

An envelope of a letter sent by Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis to John Kinnear of London, Ont., in 1967. The pair corresponded for five years, with Kinnear often sending Lewis art supplies.
An envelope of a letter sent by Lewis to John Kinnear in 1967. The pair corresponded for five years, and he often sent her art supplies. (Miller & Miller Auctions)

Kinnear and Lewis wrote a number of letters to each other. On Saturday, six that she sent to him from 1966 to 1967 will officially be auctioned by Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd., with an estimated sale price for the lot of between $3,000 and $5,000. Bids can also be placed in advance online.

"My father was very touched by that [Star Weekly] story and he liked the pictures of her work," said Kinnear's daughter Sheila, now 69 and an artist like her dad, who was a London police officer and died in 2003.

A teenager at the time, Sheila remembers her father handing her the newspaper story to read. He was a kind, patient man and a Second World War veteran. He regularly had discussions with his daughter about art and put literature in front of her to read.

"I was his shadow," she said.

Their interest piqued by the story, they decided to send Lewis a letter along with some much-needed art supplies. 

"My father always said it's never too later to help someone," Sheila said, "because you may be the only one that does."

WATCH | CBC's 1965 Telescope biography profile of Maud Lewis:

A 1965 profile of folk artist Maud Lewis at work in her Nova Scotia home

2 years ago
Duration 14:31
CBC's biography series Telescope looks in on folk artist Maud Lewis and her husband Everett. Airdate: Nov. 25, 1965.

Two weeks after sending the letter, Lewis sent one back. 

And so began what would become regular correspondence.

Miller & Miller Auctions said John and Lewis wrote to each other for five years until she died of pneumonia in 1970. Her husband died in 1979.

"It's believed Maud Lewis had few correspondents during that time," the auction house says in a release.

Lewis would send John samples of her work and he would regularly ship her art supplies. In the handwritten letters, they talked about everything from art to the weather. 

In one dated Feb. 3, 1967, she writes to him: "You'll be getting tired of hearing from me."

A painter who worked in both oil and watercolours, he also sent a special paint primer to Lewis. He was worried her paintings wouldn't last because they were often done on wood, cardboard and whatever medium she had on hand. 

John Kinnear photographed in 1950, when he was a member of the London police force. In addition to being a police officer, Kinnear was an artist who sold his works in waterpoint and silverpoint.
This photo of John Kinnear was taken in 1950 when he was a member of the London police force. He was also an artist who sold his works in watercolour and silverpoint. (Submitted by Sheila Kinnear)

At the time, Lewis was overwhelmed with her sudden and newfound fame. Her paintings were selling for no more that $10 each. John famously traded one of the paintings she sent to him for a grilled cheese sandwich at a downtown London lunch spot in the 1970s. That painting, called Black Truck, sold for $350,000 in 2022

Notoriety after death

In recent years, renown has grown for Lewis's work. Her paintings were featured on a stamp series, and her house is now fully restored and on permanent display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

Her story was the subject of a 2017 film, Maudie, staring Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins.

A colourful Maud Lewis painting of a truck on a road is shown.
Lewis painted Black Truck as a serial image, meaning there are similar paintings but no two works exactly alike. She gifted this version to John Kinnear in 1967. (Submitted by Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd.)

Sheila said what her father truly valued is the friendship and kind words the two shared in their letters. 

She said he had asked her to open the red trunk where he kept the letters a few months before his death. 

WATCH | Halifax art dealer says to be wary of forged art:

Buying and selling Maud Lewis paintings is big business — if they're real

2 months ago
Duration 2:53
Maud Lewis's simple scenes of rural life are selling for tens — and sometimes hundreds — of thousands of dollars. But Halifax art dealer Chad Brown says putting down that kind of money can be risky with the number of forgeries out there.

"We read all the letters and we reminisced about Maud and the days gone by, and his eyes welled up and mine did to," she said. "He always had a high regard for her."

Six letters Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis sent to John Kinnear are going up for auction on Sunday.
The six letters written by Lewis that are going up for auction on Saturday. Bids are currently being taken online. (Miller & Miller auctions)

Sheila said her father had friendships and exchanged letters with other artists, including London's Greg Curnoe and Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson, and that he had survived being a prisoner of war and had seen great suffering in Europe. 

"He knew pain and hardship," she said. "He also valued kindness and believed in lending a hand to others less fortunate."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.