A riot of color greeted Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme the first time he walked into Haitian Corner, an art gallery around the corner from his Manhattan apartment. Instantly transfixed, he left with a $250 painting by Haitian master Wilson Bigaud. The seed was planted.
Demme's appreciation for work by self-taught Haitian painters like Bigaud and Hector Hyppolite flowered into an obsession that he fed with multiple trips to the cash poor but artistically rich island nation, where he learned Creole and shot two documentaries.
"If you're falling in love with a country, falling in love with their art is a great lubricant and a great elixir," Demme said. "Haitian art led me to Haiti for the first time, and I discovered a great country and a great people, and the art takes on a greater meaning for me now."
Now 70 and having spent the better part of three decades amassing pieces from Haiti and other Caribbean countries as well as the United States, South America and Africa, the director of "The Silence of the Lambs" said he's looking to "streamline and simplify" his life by selling 90 percent of his well-regarded collection of self-taught or "outsider" art.
More than 900 pieces — many of them by artists with little or no formal training but abundant talent — will be auctioned at Philadelphia's Material Culture on March 29-30. The sale will be preceded by a weeklong exhibition that is free and open to the public.
"He really has followed his eye and his heart in putting this collection together," said George Jevremovic, Material Culture's owner. "A lot of high-profile folks get advisers and they spend tons of money on works that may end up at Christie's or Sotheby's, million-dollar artwork."
Demme, on the other hand, was drawn to self-taught art "on a personal level and that's the way the best collections are created, where the eye and the intellect of the collector find their own ground," Jevremovic said.
The director traces his love of artists who taught themselves how to paint and sculpt to a childhood spent watching his mother sketch landscapes.
"Anybody can go to college and learn to paint academically," Demme said. "I certainly love fine art; I don't reject it. I love to go to museums. But there's something about that sincere work, trying to capture a feeling in an image, that just turns me on."
Demme, whose collection includes many pieces produced at the Centre d'Art, the landmark Port-au-Prince art cooperative destroyed in the 2010 earthquake, said he plans to donate a portion of the proceeds to the rebuilding effort. The auction is expected to bring in $1 million to $1.4 million.
Demme is OK with letting go of his treasures, comparing himself to a parent sending his kids to college.
"You're going to miss having them around, but they are making the right journey. This work is leaving storage and my walls and going out to find new homes."
IF YOU GO: "Direct From the Eye: The Jonathan Demme Collection of Self-Taught Art" is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 22-29, at Material Culture, 4700 Wissahickon Ave., Philadelphia.