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Scenes of Time and Place: Helen LaFrance’s Folk Art Memory Paintings

by Kathy Moses Shelton (12/08/11).

The cover of “Helen LaFrance / Folk Art Memories” (S & S Publishing) wraps one of the artist’s paintings around the book.

I recently entered a postpartum period, which usually refers to the time beginning immediately after the birth of a child and extending for several weeks beyond. This is actually pretty miraculous, since my oldest child is 38 years old! The postpartum period I’m speaking of began after I submitted the manuscript of the book I had just written for layout.

I had spent the last few months writing “Helen LaFrance / Folk Art Memories” (S & S Publishing) with Bruce Shelton, who introduced me to the self-taught Southern artist almost 20 years ago. Now, I find myself feeling somewhat up in the air, not knowing what form the actual book will take, and fantasizing ways to promote the finished product beyond its automatic placement on Amazon.com.

Helen LaFrance

The book is an intimate glimpse into the life and work of Helen LaFrance, whose specialty is visually recording a way of life that is fast disappearing. Born in Western Kentucky in 1919, LaFrance is the rare artist who is able to work deftly in more than one medium. She is an accomplished painter, quilter, wood carver and Biblical interpreter, however her real skill is her exceptional ability to connect with the viewer emotionally through the memories they share. She paints scenes of a time and place that many recall, but others respond to as well. These paintings fall into a category of American folk art known as Memory Painting.

With more than 200 photographs, the book introduces us to LaFrance and illustrates the range of the her work. Some of you may have met LaFrance in a chapter of my previous book, “Outsider Art of the South” (Schiffer Publishing) or already seen her evocative memory paintings. But, if you don’t know her, you will agree she is a remarkable artist whose boundless talent is becoming known beyond the prescient collectors and museums which have always been enthusiastic fans of her work. In the book, the art speaks for itself.

We spent July through October contacting people who owned the art we wanted to illustrate the book and then photographing it. Signed permissions had to be obtained from the owners to feature their collections in the book. Bruce Shelton made all the calls and did the legwork for these steps. On my last book, I had done pretty much everything myself, so it was great to have so much help this time around. John E. Orman, IV photographed most of the art and did a super job. They drove as far as Lexington, Atlanta and the mountains of North Carolina to get pictures. When the images I had previously photographed proved to be unusable, my dear friend Rozanne Folk of Historic Works happily traveled to Western Kentucky to shoot Shelton Chapel, LaFrance’s family’s church and cemetery, and Mayfield Cemetery’s famous Wooldridge Monuments, whose life-size statues influenced the artist as a child.

There were people who lived far away who agreed to photograph the paintings professionally or do it themselves, but some had trouble setting their cameras to the highest resolution necessary. There were some multiple attempts at this process because the size of the digital file was too small, resulting in an image that was no bigger than a postage stamp. I applaud the persistent ones who kept trying while I anxiously awaited their e-mails.

For me, the writing was the easy part. My first job was as a reporter for a daily newspaper, and writing was an integral part of every subsequent stint, from museum director to historic preservationist to art and antiques dealer. I had known the artist a fairly long time, enough to give her work in a sense of place, but I was not an intimate and she didn’t gush about herself or anything else. She was a somewhat reticent interview. Luckily, I was able to rely on a close family friend who had known her since childhood to fill in the blanks. To this day, this woman brings paints to the nursing home where the artist now resides.

“Church Picnic,” oil on canvas, 12 x 24 inches. (Courtesy of Shelton Gallery)

I also interviewed others who are true experts in the field of folk art. Their comments underscored the points I wanted to make as I recreated the artist’s context. One person I really wanted to speak with was Dr. Dennis C. Dickerson, Vanderbilt University professor and historiographer of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, for background on black churches. Shelton Chapel was on that circuit, and luckily for me, Nashville was the A.M.E. headquarters. But I had spent weeks trying to reach Dr. Dickerson by phone and then missed his sincere voice message that he’d been very busy with the annual conference and was just now returning my call.

I was crestfallen as our self-imposed deadline approached, but I noticed that this telephone number was not his office phone he gave in the message, but I called it anyway. Of course it was his home, and his wife answered. I had actually spoken with her before and had explained what I needed. I had probably convinced her that I wasn’t some deranged stalker because she told me that her husband was on his way to his office as we spoke. I immediately hopped in the car and drove downtown and waited until he arrived. Dr. Dickerson looked a little unnerved when I jumped up and said, “Sorry to ambush you, but I’m Kathy Shelton, and your wife told me you’d be coming in.” We had the best afternoon visiting.

Next came the tedious task of assembling the images. I had a table of contents, so I printed out the images and put them in envelopes according to each chapter, then I stalled . . . for weeks. I had to number the images in the order of where they would be placed, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. For some reason, this kind of work makes me gnash my teeth! Last minute images arrived and I worked at refining my writing . . . anything to keep from finishing this task. Finally, I just had to begin cataloging, assigning each image with a specific identifying number, and putting each one in its proper place in the text. I created a separate file for all the captions which corresponded with these numbers, noting the title of the work of art, the medium and dimensions, and the name of the person who owned it. So, in the end, there were at least three references or identifiers for each work of art. Grrrr!

I then had to ask a few highly respected people to provide some praise for my last book for the back jacket of this book. Embarrassed that I hadn’t kept in touch with one of these key people for almost a decade, I made the call anyway. Fortunately for me, he generously responded with, “What can I do for you? You can have whatever you want . . . even my body!” I told him it was the best offer I’d had all day. I am so lucky we have that kind of relationship and can enjoy good humor.

“Wash Day,” oil on canvas, 2 x 4 feet. (Private Collection, Miccosukee, Fla.)

I asked a few trusted editors to look over the manuscript for inconsistencies and errors and to offer suggestions for improvement. Then, on D-Day, I had to submit the manuscript without the Foreword because the person who was writing it and had written the Introduction to my last book is a gentlewoman and a scholar, but she is also a perfectionist. Lee Kogan, curator emerita, American Folk Art Museum in New York, was acquainted with Helen LaFrance and could have written a brilliant treatise on her and the entire genre of memory painting. Over several months, she asked me to send her countless images to illustrate her points and, like me, kept tweaking her writing. I gave gentle reminders that I had a deadline, but it had to be a certain way for her, as she said, before she would hit the send key. And so it is. What she wrote is both everything and more than I could have hoped.

Our layout people, Gwyn Kennedy Snider and Tessa Marshall of GKSCreative, “got it.” They understood exactly what I wanted the book cover to look like. Instead of planting a painting on the front jacket and maybe another one on the back, I wanted to take one painting, blow it up to 11 x 18 inches and wrap it around the hard cover book. I would sometimes preface expressing myself by saying, “This may be a little weird,” and Gwyn would say right away, “That’s OK. I like weird.” It never was that weird. We were thrilled with the book jacket and know their design will be wonderful. And then we will await the production of the finished book.

A favorite reminiscence about Helen LaFrance concerns one of my last visits with her, this time in a nursing home. LaFrance had commandeered a corner of the day room and made it into a studio. A nurse led us down a winding corridor and, when we reached her, said with some awe, “I didn’t know we had such a famous artist in residence.” LaFrance, with paint brush in hand, replied matter-of-factly without missing a beat, “You don’t.” Helen LaFrance looked no different from the way she did when I first met her almost 20 years earlier. She was still painting.

Bruce Shelton’s inventory may be found on the Shelton Gallery website and his GoAntiques store.

Kathy Moses Shelton, based in Nashville, Tenn., is owner of Just Looking, which specializes in American antiques, accessories and art (19th century to Modernism), silver, folk and outsider art, and whimsical things. She has also been a guest on Martha Stewart Living Television. You can also view her inventory on GoAntiques.com.

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