While not exceedingly well known, Kentucky native Helen LaFrance was one of the most gifted and prolific self-taught artists of the past century. She created paintings, hand-carved sculptures, and collages; in addition, she crafted quilts and made dolls. The art and life of LaFrance, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 101, is being honored in a retrospective at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. “Helen LaFrance’s work provides an intimate look into a century of local history through the eyes of a Black woman living from Jim Crow through the turn of the new millennium,” says the museum’s chief curator, Erika Holmquist-Wall. “LaFrance was an influential artist whose gifts were recognized by communities and collectors alike, and this exhibition is designed to introduce new audiences and longtime fans to her life’s work. It’s an important step in further cementing her artistic legacy, and we hope this display helps foster more interest in LaFrance’s unique perspective.”
LaFrance is said to have spent almost the entirety of her life within ten miles of her birthplace in Graves County, where she grew up the daughter of farmers who raised tobacco and corn. Though she received little schooling beyond home instruction, LaFrance loved to draw when she finished her chores and her mother taught her how to paint and to make pigments from handy sources like wild berries, dandelions, and laundry detergent. LaFrance painted throughout her life while working jobs that ranged from hospital cook to retoucher in a photo studio, and had achieved a modestly comfortable life when she began to paint full-time in the 1980s.
LaFrance paintings have drawn comparisons to those of Grandma Moses and to Horace Pippin’s domestic scenes. She was reticent about her adult life, and must have seen some ugliness, but she focused on tranquil communal subjects. La France had a masterful eye for composition, and for atmospheric details such as trees and the sky. Like Moses, she preferred to view proceedings from a distance, from a bird’s eye point of view. Yet even at a remove LaFrance could conjure intimacy and emotion. There’s a felt sense of spirituality in River Baptism; of excitement in Barn Dance; and of grief in Carrying the Casket. For those unfamiliar with the art of Helen LaFrance, the exhibition at the Speed is both a revelation and a delight.
Kentucky Women: Helen LaFrance • Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky • to April 30 • speedmuseum.org