A prominent painter whose works capture the rural, small town culture of Kentucky turned 100 on Saturday.
Helen LaFrance visited a church in Mayfield to celebrate her birthday with an unexpectedly large group of friends and family. A documentary about her also was shown at a separate church in Mayfield.
According to a press release, LaFrance’s paintings are housed in museums in the U.S. and Europe, and in the collections of Oprah Winfrey and Bryant Gumbel. The self-taught, African American painter’s works show people at church, family gatherings, funerals and other aspects of small-town life in western Kentucky.
One of her first known public works is a mural in the St. James AME Church in Mayfield, completed in 1947. LaFrance also has worked in wood carving and quilting.
Longtime friend Wanda Stubblefield calls LaFrance a modest and private person who does not seek attention or recognition.
“When she saw everyone today, she just gave a little smile, an embarrassed-looking smile, that it was all for her,” Stubblefield said in a phone interview.
LaFrance was born in a small community in Graves County, Kentucky. LaFrance and her sisters grew up on the family’s farm, where cotton and tobacco were grown, and pigs, chickens and cows were raised.
She could draw before she learned to write, making paintings on large tablets and leftover wallpaper.
“Mom used to hold my hand and help me to draw things,” LaFrance said in the press release.
LaFrance’s first work was a large gray rabbit painted in watercolors on the back of a piece of wallpaper, according to a bio on the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights’ webpage.
Later in life, LaFrance worked in a hospital, tobacco barns and a ceramic factory, where she decorated whiskey bottles, the press release said. Still, she did not begin her “memory painting” full time until 1986.
LaFrance now lives in a nursing home and no longer paints regularly. But her legacy lives on in her art, two documentaries and a book about her life.
Stubblefield, also from Kentucky, said she recognizes scenes painted by LaFrance.
“What was famous about her is she always did a lot of church scenes, and that’s the church we attended all the time,” Stubblefield said. “It’s the church where we had the church picnics.”
The documentary “Helen LaFrance: Memories” recently screened at the Saint Louis Art Museum.