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New Louisville museum exhibition highlights Helen LaFrance's 'memory paintings'


Helen LaFrance painted her memories. She painted Black rural life in western Kentucky, which means that her memory paintings, as they're called, capture some of the diversity of American rural life. Stephanie Wolf of our member station WFPL reports.

STEPHANIE WOLF, BYLINE: Over and over again, Helen LaFrance brought scenes from her past to life with colorful, bold brushstrokes, scenes like this one painting of a picnic at a Black church in a small Kentucky town. Congregants are dressed in their finest. A field of bright, yellow wheat lines the horizon. Young children holding hands form a circle. She uses the kind of skewed perspective that makes her work expressive, lively.

BRUCE SHELTON: This woman is an American treasure.

WOLF: That's gallerist Bruce Shelton, who worked with LaFrance for decades. He puts LaFrance on par with the likes of Grandma Moses, another self-taught folk artist 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. But Shelton and others hope a show spanning her career at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville will introduce her to a larger audience.

SHELTON: It takes something like this going on at the Speed, somebody to see this artist in her entirety. And curators will see it. Collectors will see it. A young child's life may be changed by going in there and seeing this exhibit.

WOLF: LaFrance told PBS member station KET in 1997 that painting was a way of reliving her childhood.


HELEN LAFRANCE: Oh, I just get to thinking about something. And I said, well, I remember how that was. I believe I'll put it on paper or canvas or whatever.

WOLF: LaFrance was born in 1919 in southwestern Kentucky. Her father farmed. She and her sisters helped in the fields. LaFrance's mother encouraged her toward art, teaching her how to draw and mix colors. She stayed close to home most of her life, working different jobs - a hospital cook or making bottles at a ceramic factory. In the 1980s, she devoted more time to painting and began to sell her work.


LAFRANCE: I never did quit trying to paint and trying to draw. I always thought someday I'll have time to do something worthwhile.

WOLF: There's a hint of darkness in LaFrance's work. She was a child when the Great Depression hit and grew up as a Black woman in Kentucky with Jim Crow laws.

WANDA STUBBLEFIELD: Miss Helen had a strong belief about that evil part of life, which - I don't think she would ever painted something that was so evil.

WOLF: That's close friend Wanda Stubblefield. She helped care for LaFrance in her later years and says LaFrance didn't talk much about her art or her process.

STUBBLEFIELD: I think it's just things that she saw that struck her interest that she wanted to paint.

WOLF: One of LaFrance's earliest public works is a mural of Jesus praying at the St. James AME Church in Mayfield, Ky., the town where LaFrance lived until her death. Last December, tornadoes devastated western Kentucky communities, including downtown Mayfield. The few parts of the St. James AME Church still upright include the front doors and LaFrance's mural.


WOLF: Today, a worker removes a tarp that has been protecting the mural from the elements and ongoing construction. Kristy Lawson is a church member. Her mother was raised by LaFrance as if she were her own child. Lawson believes the mural remaining intact was an act of God.

KRISTY LAWSON: He knew Granny's heart. He knew what she wanted to do, what she meant to everybody.

WOLF: Lawson says LaFrance was kind, giving, a woman of faith.

LAWSON: She'll get up 5 or 6 in the morning, start her day with her Bible, or go around see - look how her gardens are doing, the pond. She was just very nature. That's something God created, so why not enjoy it?

WOLF: LaFrance was beloved in this community. That's the message from church steward Thomas Bright. He says that's why it's important to restore and preserve this mural. He finds it inspiring to see LaFrance getting more recognition, including by the Speed Art Museum.

THOMAS BRIGHT: A lot of our history is lost, and we have a lot of local heroes that go unsung. And that's why she should be remembered for that and recognized.

WOLF: The mural, the museum retrospective - family and friends think Helen LaFrance would be surprised by all of this attention. She never considered herself something grand, one person tells me. LaFrance painted into her 90s but never considered herself a professional artist. It was just something she loved to do.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Wolf, in Mayfield, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Wolf