The art collection of film director Jonathan Demme is now on display at a Philadelphia auction house. It will be sold off this weekend. Some of the folk art pieces were on-screen in Demme’s movies.
This is the second auction of folk art bought over many decades by Demme, the maker of “Philadelphia,” “Silence of the Lambs” (for which he won an Oscar), “Rachel Getting Married,” and most recently “Ricki and the Flash” with Meryl Streep.
The first auction at Material Culture in Philadelphia’s Tioga-Nicetown neighborhood in 2014, featured hundreds of pieces he had collected during his frequent trips to Haiti.
“We had a lot of funny, weird things last time — Haitian t-shirts and things like that,” he said. “We learned a lot from the last auction. You can see where the folks are zeroing in, what they want to collect. This is catering very much to that.”
So, none of Demme’s Haitian soda bottles this time: the exhibition and auction of over 550 lots (again at Material Culture) is focused on paintings and sculpture, including dozens of folk paintings of historical moments in Haiti, more abstract work of floral and fauna by artists associated with Le Centre d’Art in Port au Prince, and work by well-known American “outsider” artists.
The show is not without its oddball whimsy: there are toy cars made from scrap metal the West African nation of Burkina Faso, hand-painted signs for hair braiding businesses in Togo, also in West Africa, and a carved wooden chicken by an American folk artist.
These are from the collection of Ford Wheeler, whom Demme roped into this auction. Wheeler is production designer for films and a longtime collaborator with Demme. He has spent a lifetime collecting curios, having run a popular import store in Manhattan, Craft Caravan, before he got into the movie business. That’s where Demme first met him in the 1970s.
He worked on Demme’s picture “Rachel Getting Married,” a messy family drama that took place in a messy family home. A lot of the things cluttering the Buchman house came out of Wheeler’s house.
“[Demme] proposed that I try to make the house look like my own house in the country — with the modification that I try to match the characters and their ages and their family situation,” he said. “I brought truckloads of stuff from my house.”
Many of the things Wheeler is auctioning off probably appeared in films at some point. He has so much stuff, and worked on so many films, he never took an account of which had a big screen debut.
His style of collecting — he hesitates to call it a collection — is about putting different pieces together so they make something interesting happen in a room. The individual pieces on their own may not hold value to somebody without Wheeler’s eye for potential.
“It’s heartbreaking to lose these things, to tell you the truth,” said Wheeler, who is selling his country home and has to clear it out. “To me, I made a painting – but I made it out of objects and furniture and everything. I have to take it all down, throw half of it away and sell the parts I think somebody would want to pay for.”
There are a few big-ticket items at the auction, but the vast majority of pieces will go for a few hundred dollars apiece. One reason Demme and Wheeler were able to acquire so much folk art is that it generally comes cheap. The value is more personal than financial.
“If you love art — and gosh, I’m obsessed with it…they have lives, to me,” said Demme. “I don’t buy randomly. I bought a lot because the prices are so incredibly affordable. So I bought a lot, but it was always an authentic ‘Ah! I love that!'”
Demme bought so much that he can’t contain all of it. It won’t fit on his walls. He said much of his collection is locked away in two storage units.
He doesn’t’ feel right about it: if you love something, set it free.
“That’s what makes it easy to part with stuff,” he said. “I’ve had my share of it, I’ve drunk fully from it. So now, let’s pass it on.”
Demme will attend a reception at Material Culture on Saturday, before the auction begins on Sunday.
Correction: a previous version of this aricle misstated the date of Material Culture’s pre-auction reception party. It will occur on Saturday evening.