A dreamlike painting that shows a small, still pond which reflects its surroundings of a dense green thicket under a bright blue summer sky. There seem to be 3-4 figures with a dark skin tone swimming together.
Above: Swimming Hole, oil on canvas, Loan courtesy of Bruce Shelton

Kentucky Women: Helen LaFrance

Alexandra Drexelius

Located in the lower level of the Speed Art Museum, the Kentucky Gallery exhibits a cluster of permanent collection objects representative of the visual and material culture of the Bluegrass State from the nineteenth and twentieth century—embroidered samplers, oil portraits, wood marquetry furniture, and more. In 2019, the Museum expanded the regional remit of these galleries, launching a special exhibition program, Kentucky Women, with aspirations to chronicle a more complete picture of the state’s history and cultural landscape by spotlighting the creative output of its female residents. Following an inaugural presentation on Louisville-born sculptor Enid Yandell, the Speed now presents a second installment, Kentucky Women: Helen LaFrance (August 26, 2022 – April 30, 2023), dedicated to the life and work of artist Helen LaFrance (1919 – 2020), whose paintings detailed everyday Black life in western Kentucky.

Look closely at LaFrance’s paintings and you will notice what she granted the greatest attention. Her compositions, while beautiful, stand out for their details, indicative of intense observation. Surveying the gentle incline of a hill in her painting Funeral in the Mist, one might proffer that no one has ever seen grass so clearly as LaFrance. Each blade has definition, articulated in the negative by removing fine hatches of paint from the canvas. These crisp, sgraffito marks viewed as a whole capture the texture, depth, and movement of green-covered ground with effortless precision. In LaFrance’s landscapes grass is an abundant, mutable, and life-affirming footing to be remembered and cherished.

As with her verdant lawns and pastures, LaFrance adapted her painting technique to best describe her subject. Patches of paint energetically speckled over delineated branches and trunks act as tactile impressions of foliage on trees. LaFrance also worked in broader strokes, applying thick passages of oil, with highlights added while the paint was still wet. In a painting inspired by her readings of the bible, Moses on the Mountain, Book of Exodus, 24:12-15, vertical streaks of paint are staggered to form the ledges of a craggy mountain face. Beneath this large, abstract stretch of painting, more assiduous brushwork evokes a tree canopy. These distinct styles accentuate the separation in scale between the immense wall of rock that looms over the leafy forest floor. Similarly, in recreational scenes Fishing and Swimming Hole, LaFrance demonstrates her range by employing two modes, one representational and one abstract, to capture the blur of landscape reflected in water.

This solo exhibition coincides with heightened interest in artwork on the peripheries of conventionally recognized art history, with folk artists, women artists, and Black artists frequently situated within fraught narratives that champion the curator, collector, or historian for “rediscovering” these artists and elevating their work beyond an assumed overlooked status. As a Black, female, folk artist who recently passed away, it is unsurprising that LaFrance has gained increased attention. A parallel installation at the Saint Louis Art Museum, Memory Painting: Helen LaFrance and the American Landscape (April 1–December 11, 2022) employs a comparative method, situating two recent acquisitions of LaFrance’s work alongside American vernacular art of the thirties and forties and more recent interpretations of  nature  drawn from memory and imagination. These juxtapositions can aid a viewer, offering formal or contemporaneous parallels for the work to be read against, but they do not necessarily speak to the artist’s own experience of their practice or their historical reception and context. Questioned about her “art” during an interview in the 2018 documentary Helen LaFrance: Memories, LaFrance retorted, “I didn’t know it was art, it’s just something I liked to do…you got the name art from somebody else.”

Rather than bring the outside in, the Speed meets LaFrance on her own terms, showing what she liked to do, with her biography and the immediate context of Graves County informing the structure of the exhibition. Without an exact temporal framework—much of her painting is undated—her work is organized under loose thematic groupings drawn from the subject matter of her paintings. These categories—fellowship, gathering, interiors—pertain to the experiences and phenomena that LaFrance recalled with frequency. The salon-style hang of paintings puts forth groupings without hierarchy. Two thoughtful juxtapositions of interior and exterior spaces, one cosmopolitan—Downtown for Dinner and Downtown Saturday Night—and one spiritual—Church Choir and Carrying the Casket—point to the fluidity with which LaFrance pictured her community. In contrast to her upbringing under Jim Crow laws, marked by segregation, she painted a world where people moved freely; where doors were open; and where expansive fields and glittering night skies were available for all to share and behold.

The proportions of these paintings—their wide, open spaces dotted with people and things—point to LaFrance’s sensitivity towards place. Few images depict solitary figures. Rendered diminutively in relation to their settings, with slight definition, people are shown congregating, sharing spaces and activities. LaFrance was unconcerned with capturing the likeness of any single friend, family member, or acquaintance. Instead, she favored instances of her community coming together to be a part of something larger than themselves, exemplified by paintings of church picnics, farm work, and other group activities from barn dances to yard sales. In Large Church Picnic, throngs of figures stand small adjacent to the mature height of seven trees only matched in stature by the pitched roof of the church. Most picnickers have their back turned from the viewer, underscoring their anonymity. Similarly, interior scenes, such as Dominoes and Bible Study, concentrate on shared experiences, with richly wallpapered rooms and high ceilings enveloping daintily painted figures as they exchange games and scripture around a large, central  table. The scale of these images asserts that one’s community is far more enduring than any individual contribution.

Alongside ebullient tableaus of summer days passed fishing and swimming and bustling nights out on the small-town strip, images of loss show up throughout the exhibition. A violent composition, The Tornado, depicts a horrific storm tearing through a country landscape: fields of wheat blow erratically, tree trunks bow down and snap under the pressure of the wind, and rafters fly off roofs. In the foreground, two figures lay limp like ragdolls in a horse-drawn wagon advancing towards the edge of the picture plane. Adjacent to the painting, a wall text details online resources to support rebuilding efforts in the wake of a real, devastating tornado from December 2021, which left LaFrance’s hometown of Mayfield in shambles. Further into the exhibition, LaFrance’s paintings of the Graves County Courthouse and First Presbyterian Church are paired with photographs of their destruction in the wake of the storm. These side-by-side images underscore the immeasurable loss felt by the Mayfield community, their beloved landmarks ripped apart by a natural disaster, but they also remind us of LaFrance’s generosity through paintings that memorized these buildings down to every brick. She looked closely, rebuilding her memories with each stroke of paint, and her images will preserve a piece of Kentucky history well past her lifetime.

The introductory wall text describes LaFrance as a “self-taught” artist. A range of identifiers attempt to locate the so-called outsider artist within a tradition, or some nebulous milieu of peers. Some constructive, some reductive, and some harmful, each of these locutions strive to pin down the place of an artist who, by these very definitions, has no place within the perceived normative structures in which art has been taught, assessed, and narrativized. Despite this categorical baggage, here, self-taught is factual. LaFrance had no access to formal schooling and instead relied on her nurturing family and resourceful spirit. Centering her creative agency, hard work, and extensive knowledge, the exhibition looks to her “memory paintings” as records of her rich lived experience from which she came to know things about herself and the world around her. With the understanding that experiences are fleeting, and memories, even strong ones, are prone to perish, LaFrance set out to preserve what she knew through her art. She depicted the same scenes over and over, coming to know them intimately in real life and in her painting.

The present exhibition succeeds by positioning LaFrance as an insider artist, resolute in her faithful depictions of both the joys and sorrows of Kentucky life. If LaFrance’s mother encouraged her to “paint what you know”, then the Speed has intelligently followed suit, organizing a confident yet sensitive exhibition that knows its subject and knows its audience.
A white wall displaying four artworks with a sculpture in the foreground. From left to right, there are two photos in light wood frames on the wall, followed by a photograph printed on fabric and draped on the wall, and then another framed photo. The sculpture is a plate carrier vest with patches embroidered with white text, resting on a wood stand.A dream-like painting of an evening winter scene of a barn lit up with warm yellow light underneath a cold gray and empty tree sky. Many small figures with a dark skin tone dance together in the barn, with small groupings of figures either just arriving or just leaving outside, some standing, some in a horse drawn farming cart.

Barn Dance, oil on canvas, Loan courtesy of Kathy Moses

A dreamlike painting of an interior dining room scene that shows a family of 5 with a dark skin tone and carrying ages all around a table with a white table cloth, each reading what appears to be the same book. The walls behind are decorated with a geometric wallpaper, a family portrait, and a window which reveals a deep forest-green outside.
Bible Study, oil on canvas, Loan courtesy of Bruce Shelton

A painting of a funeral procession walking towards a very misty and atmospheric cemetery. The several dozen figures shown are rendered with very small marks, as if seen by a bird overhead. The ground and trees are green, and the sky, which takes up half of the scene, is a mottled dark turquoise and gray.
Funeral in the Mist, oil on canvas, 2 Loan courtesy of Bruce Shelton

A dreamlike painting that depicts a collection of 20 or more faces, laying flat against, or perhaps emerging out of, a dense green shrub. Their expressions, which are cartoonish and varying, seem fixed, like masks and their skin tones range from realistic flesh colors to dark grays or light blues. In the middle of the image are two large, white horse heads, which seem aggravated.
Outside My Studio, oil on canvas, Loan courtesy of Bruce Shelton

Kentucky Women: Helen LaFrance is on view through April 30, 2023



Alexandra Drexelius (she/her) is a writer based in Chicago, IL

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY