Two months ago, Eileen Cain noticed a painting in a secondhand shop in Robbinsdale and decided she had to have it.
She soon discovered it was a hidden treasure -- in more ways than one.
The painting, which cost her $2.99 plus tax, turned out to be an original by Gino Hollander, a renowned California artist whose paintings and portraits hang in galleries around the world.
But Cain had no desire to cash in. Instead, she tracked him down using a Google search and asked if he would paint a portrait of her mother.
And that's how Hollander, 87, came to paint a portrait of Alphie Cain of St. Louis Park for her 89th birthday -- for the price of a year's worth of cigarettes.
"I almost fainted, I think," said Alphie Cain, who received the portrait on her birthday Wednesday. "I felt like I was in a daze all day."
For her daughter Eileen, who works in special ed at the Minneapolis schools, the whole chain of events seems surreal. "This is really a story about two gracious, extraordinary contemporaries," she said. "I was just the conduit that brought them together."
The family has long thought that Alphie Cain, whose nickname is Joey, was something special. Originally from Murdock, Minn., she moved to Minneapolis with her late husband, Earl, and raised 17 children, four girls and 13 boys.
Apparently, that struck a chord with Hollander, the father of five. "Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!," he wrote back in one of his first e-mail exchanges with Eileen. "How lucky can you get in life."
At his request, Eileen e-mailed several photos of her mother as a young woman, including her wedding photo as an 18-year-old in 1941.
Hollander wrote back that his wife, Barbara, on seeing the photo, had called her "one very sexy lady."
But Eileen Cain was crestfallen when she saw Hollander's price list -- from $4,200 to $63,000 for a commissioned portrait. She explained that, as a part-time school worker, it was out of her range.
But something about the family photos, and all those kids, moved the artist. "I would like to do it and will make it happen," Hollander wrote back. As for the cost, he added, "it'll all work out."
For days, Eileen Cain wracked her brain about how to pay him. Then she woke up one day at 4:30 a.m. with a brainstorm. "I said I'm going to quit smoking and pay him with the money I would have spent on cigarettes," she said. "I threw away my cigarettes and ashtrays and I e-mailed him." At a pack a day, she figured that would add up to about $1,600 a year.
Hollander didn't hesitate. "If getting you off of cigs is the way for the portrait ... even better," he wrote, "How's about a year's cigarette savings and done deal."
That was July 26. Eileen Cain, who will only say that she smoked for "too long," quit cold turkey. The finished canvas arrived, unframed, by mail this week.
At her mother's apartment, she unrolled the canvas, and her mother gasped.
Hollander captured the dark-haired young beauty in his signature abstract style, with the corsage and dress she wore on her wedding day.
Alphie Cain says she sees something else in the portrait. "I thought of my mother," she said. "I see my mom more in it than I see myself."
Therese Cain, another daughter, says she's grateful to Hollander for immortalizing her mother. But he also did her sister a favor, she said. As a friend told Eileen, "he not only did a gorgeous portrait of your mother, he saved your life."
Eileen, for her part, says she has no intention of smoking again. "I wouldn't break that [commitment] for anything."
Hollander, who cultivates an image as a brash and uncompromising artist, admits he got a kick out of Eileen's unorthodox payment plan. "That was a first in a long and varied half-century of painting," he wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune.
But, he added, "That's life ... with love tossed in."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384