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Rural Kentucky folk artist Helen LaFrance dies at 101

Helen LaFrance, a self-taught artist whose vibrant and intimate “memory paintings” of scenes from her childhood in rural Kentucky brought her late fame, died Nov. 22 at a retirement home in Mayfield, Ky. She was 101 years.

Her death was announced by longtime friend Wanda Whittemore-Stubblefield.

In vibrant colors and crisp brush strokes, Madame LaFrance painted church picnics and river baptisms; tobacco barns; backyard gardens with geese and children roaming them; kitchens with bushels of apples and jars of preserves that shine like stained glass. His exuberant scenes of rural life invited comparisons with Grandmother Moses, Horace Pippin and other regional painters who drew on their memories to tell stories about a time and place that have passed away.

“It’s just a way to relive it all,” Ms. LaFrance told a TV interviewer in 2010. The following year she said to another interviewer, “If I do something that someone likes, eh well, i’m happy because someone liked what i did. , but I don’t think it matters.

Author Kathy Moses Shelton, who along with gallery owner Bruce Shelton wrote “Helen LaFrance: Folk Art Memories” (2011), has called Ms. LaFrance an “American treasure.”

“She is a self-taught black artist who paints her memories of a particular time and place,” Ms. Moses Shelton said in a telephone interview. “She grew up under Jim Crow. She was 10 when the Great Depression hit.

“His art does not reflect the pain of that time,” continued Ms. Moses Shelton. “Instead, what passes is the joy and values ​​of family and work. Her family owned and cultivated their own land when sharecropping was the norm, and they were self-sufficient and lived with dignity. His mix of personal experience, Black American culture and heritage, and his skills come into play to make his job unlike any other. It’s a real American voice.

Helen LaFrance Orr was born on November 2, 1919 in Graves County, Ky., The second of four daughters. His parents, James Franklin Orr and Lillie May (Ligon) Orr, known as Bud and Hon, grew tobacco and corn.

Helen didn’t go to school much. Her parents taught her reading and math, and her mother taught her to paint, guiding her hand and helping her mix the colors of dandelions, berries, and Bluette laundry detergent. She and her sisters worked in their family’s fields, and Helen drew after her chores were completed. She remembered loving the smell of the pencils her mother would bring her.

Ms. LaFrance has lived and worked most of her life within 10 miles of her birthplace. She worked in a tobacco barn and in a hospital as a cook. She also made custom whiskey decanters for a local ceramics company and worked as a retoucher in a photography studio. She owned property, commercial space and land.

She always painted, but she didn’t do it full time until the 1980s, when she started selling her work to neighbors and to local art shows and country fairs. She also made woodcarvings and quilts. She lived in a double-width mobile home and used an old school bus parked on her property as a studio before moving into a house in Mayfield.

Gus Van Sant Sr., a native of Mayfield and father of the filmmaker, discovered her there in the early 1990s; About a decade earlier, his wife, Betty, had bought him a painting by Helen LaFrance of a tobacco barn, and the couple looked at it when they returned to Kentucky.

Mr. Van Sant was won over by her work and feared that she would get the value she deserved from the sales of her paintings. He and a friend contacted folk art galleries and institutions across the country on her behalf and helped her open a bank account so that she could be paid directly. Mr. Shelton has also started selling his work, and last year made a short documentary about his life.

In 2011, Ms. LaFrance received the Kentucky Folk Art Heritage Award. Oprah Winfrey, Bryant Gumbel, and collector Beth Rudin DeWoody all purchased her work, which is in the permanent collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art in Owensboro, Ky.

Sweet, modest and religious, Ms. LaFrance has not had long exposure to her life or her motivations. She liked to say, when in a rush for details, “There are some things that should be left out.”

She’s married five times: twice to Elvis Lynn (back to back, as Mrs Whittemore-Stubblefield said) and once each to Lynn Rhybon, Burt McCampbell and AD Whittemore, a preacher. All marriages ended in divorce. She leaves no immediate survivors.

She was extremely self-sufficient, said Ms Whittemore-Stubblefield, and not “the soothing housewife type”. She said that when Ms. LaFrance left her last husband, the preacher, she waited until he came to his church on a Sunday, packed his bags and left when he returned.

She once said to an interviewer, “Think twice, say it once. If you think you are right, know that you are right before you do anything. If you don’t know what you’re doing, ask God about it.

In addition to domestic and rural scenes, Ms. LaFrance produced religious paintings of visions inspired by her knowledge of the Bible. This work was both terrifying and ecstatic, and her technique was markedly different from her normal output, more Georgia O’Keeffe than Grandma Moses. While she was happy to elaborate on a picnic painting back from her local church, describing how families came once a year from all over the country, or telling a story about getting tobacco rides to chewing, provoked by a scene she had painted of tobacco drying in a barn, she was silent about her religious work.

Credit…via Bruce Shelton / Sheltongallery

Mr. Shelton once brought a friend, Eugene Collins, an entrepreneur and businessman from Nashville, to visit him. When he saw her school bus workshop, which she had long complained about – it was as hot as an oven, she said – he promised to come back and build her a suitable one, in exchange for some of the paintings. religious. “Just keep painting,” he told her. He made it a spacious and airy building, placing it on an elevation on his land.

Ms. LaFrance worked on more than one canvas at a time, a method she developed late in life that allowed her to continue painting instead of waiting for a room to dry. Mr Van Sant said that she had extended her practice further, on tiny canvases, as a means of using paint on her brushes.

“They were really great,” he says. “I remember one of them was a kitchen with ornate wallpaper, maybe four by four inches, and Helen said she was selling it to someone she knew. I asked her what she was going to charge.

“When she was thinking about something, she always let out that huge sigh. “Ooh,” she said. Big sigh. “I was thinking about $ 20. I said, ‘Helen, don’t let her get out of here without at least $ 100. ”

“Later,” he continued, “I asked her how much she sold it, and there was a sigh. “Ooh,” she said. “$ 99. I couldn’t say $ 100. “

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