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Helen LaFrance re-lived her life through her paintings. The Speed is celebrating that in a new exhibition

"River Baptism" by Helen LaFrance, oil on canvas, Loan courtesy of Bruce Shelton
©2022 Bill Roughen
Artist: Helen Le France

Helen LaFrance brought scenes from her past to life with colorful, bold brush strokes.

The images she recalled on canvas and paper were largely communal, joyful ones of Black rural life in western Kentucky. She painted a church picnic with congregants dressed in their finest, a field of bright yellow wheat lines the horizon, and young children holding hands form a circle. She used a kind of skewed perspective and scale that makes her work expressive and lively. 

“This woman is an American treasure,” said gallerist and curator Bruce Shelton, who worked with LaFrance for decades and is looking to establish the Helen LaFrance Foundation. 

He put LaFrance on par with the likes of Grandma Moses or Clementine Hunter, other self-taught folk artists who found acclaim for documenting rural living in vibrant paintings.

LaFrance died in late 2020 at 101. During her lifetime, her work was celebrated locally and regionally. Museums in Kentucky and St. Louis have her paintings in their permanent collections, and galleries and museums in the area have hosted exhibitions of her art. But Shelton, and others, hope ashow spanning her career at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville will introduce her to a larger audience. 

“It takes something like this going on at the Speed, somebody to see this artist in her entirety,” Shelton said. 

He’s optimistic the retrospective will help ensure LaFrance doesn’t slip into artistic obscurity, in part, due to how long the show will be up – it opened last week and runs through April 30, 2023. 

“Curators will see it, collectors will see it,” he continued. “A young child's life may be changed by going in there and seeing this exhibit.”

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Helen LaFrance re-lived her life through her art. The Speed is celebrating that in a new exhibition

She painted from memory

LaFrance is best known for her body of work called “memory paintings. 

In 1997, she told PBS member station KET painting was a way of re-living her childhood and other parts of her life.

“Oh I just get to thinking about something and I said, ‘I remember how that was. I believe I’ll put it on paper or canvas, or whatever,’” she said. 

LaFrance was born in 1919 in Graves County, Ky. Her father farmed, and she and her sister would help in the fields, she told KET. Her mother encouraged her toward art, teaching her how to draw and mix colors. 

She stayed close to home most of her life, and did different jobs, such as a hospital cook and working at a ceramics factory. In the 1980s, LaFrance devoted more time to painting and began to sell her work. 

“I never did quit trying to paint and trying to draw,” she said in the 1997 KET interview. “I always thought someday I’ll have time to do something worthwhile.” 

LaFrance was a child when the Great Depression hit, and grew up as a Black woman in Kentucky while Jim Crow laws were ongoing. There’s, arguably, a hint of darkness in LaFrance’s work, but that history isn’t the focus. 

“Miss Helen had a strong belief about that evil part of life… But I don't think she would ever painted something that was so evil,” said Wanda Stubblefield, who was a friend of LaFrance’s and helped care for the artist in her later years.

LaFrance painted into her 90s, Stubblefield said, but she didn’t talk much about her art or her process either. 

“I think it was just things that she saw that struck her interest with her that she wanted to paint,” Stubblefield continued. 

LaFrance and Stubblefield grew up in the same small community and were, in fact, family: “Her first husband was my cousin and her last husband was my uncle.”

The late artist married a handful of times. She also owned property.

“To me, what was so impressive was all the things that she knew and didn't have a formal education,” Stubblefield said. "But she applied herself. She made sure she read or that she got involved in different things.”

A retrospective on her life and art

The Speed show, “Kentucky Women: Helen LaFrance,” features more than 35 pieces, including LaFrance’s “memory paintings,” her hand-carved wooden dolls and sculptures. LaFrance was also a quilter.

“She's experienced a lot. I mean, she passed away at 101 years old,” the Speed’s American Association of Museum Directors intern, Marissa Coleman, who helped organize the exhibition, said. “So there's just life in her pieces.”

Coleman and the museum’s chief curator, Erika Holmquist-Wall, have arranged the show “salon style,” hanging the paintings closely together, in the Speed’s Kentucky Gallery.

Holmquist-Wall said they wanted to fit in as much of her work as possible. 

“We have all been sitting in our homes, looking at screens, for the past two and a half years, and we all need to see more art in person and as much art as possible. So we went maximalist,” she said.

Yet, they feel like they’re “only scratching the surface” with this exhibition. Holmquist-Wall would love to see LaFrance get a larger exhibition, accompanied by scholarly publications. 

“My hope is with this exhibition that it will lead to greater things, more attention, and more being written and shared about her and her work.”

Saving a LaFrance mural in Mayfield

One of LaFrance’s earliest public works is a mural of Jesus praying. It's located at the St. James AME Church in Mayfield, Ky., a town where LaFrance lived when she died. 

Last December, tornadoes devastated western Kentucky communities, including Mayfield, where the storm wiped out the downtown. Several of LaFrance’s paintings depicting Mayfield buildings that were destroyed by the December tornadoes are on display in the Speed exhibition. 

The few parts of the historic Black church still upright include the front doors and LaFrance’s mural, which is at the back of the choir stand. Church staff have protected the mural from the elements and ongoing construction with a tarp.

Church member Kristy Lawson, whose mother LaFrance raised as her own, believes the mural's survival was an act of God.

“He knew Granny's heart. He knew what she wanted to do, what she meant to everybody,” Lawson said.

Lawson said LaFrance was kind, giving and didn’t care for material things. She was also a woman of faith. 

“She'd get up five or six in the morning, start her day with her Bible, or go look at her garden or go see the pond. She was just very nature,” Lawson said.

Kristen Armstrong, who knew LaFrance as great-Granny, said she was also “very family-oriented.” She remembers big holiday meals at LaFrance’s home.

“She wanted everybody to come together,” Armstrong said.   

Church steward Thomas Bright found LaFrance and her artistic accomplishments inspiring. He said she’s an important part of American history and Black history. 

“A lot of our history is lost,” Bright said. “And that's why she should be remembered for that and recognized.”

There's still significant rebuilding to be done with the church itself. That needs to be addressed first, Bright said, and the work could take another year or more. But they plan to eventually touch up the mural and enclose it to preserve it.

“It's gonna be the focal point of the church when you first walk in,” Bright said.

According to WKMS, St. James AME Church received $100,000 in funds from the National Trust for Historic Preservation earlier this year to put toward rebuilding and preserving the church and the LaFrance mural.

Family and friends think LaFrance would be surprised by all of this attention. 

“She never considered herself something very grand,” Wanda Stubblefield said.

Art was just something LaFrance loved to do.

A disclaimer: The Speed Art Museum is among the financial supporters of Louisville Public Media.