Folk artist Helen LaFrance being honored at Speed Art Museum

The Speed Art Museum presents Kentucky Women: Helen LaFrance, opening this August as a survey of the artist’s nearly six-decade-long career. LaFrance, who began painting in her 40s and passed away in 2020 at the age of 101, was a prolific figure in American folk art who captured memories of small-town domestic and community life, as well as biblical visionary scenes, through her paintings, murals, quilts, wooden sculptures, dolls, and collages. Drawing upon several of these mediums, the exhibition features more than 35 works showcasing LaFrance’s wide-ranging body of work, from glimpses of everyday life to powerful civic and spiritual moments. Kentucky Women: Helen LaFrance will be on view at the Speed from August 26, 2022 to April 30, 2023.

A highlight of the exhibition is its selection of LaFrance’s celebrated sense-memory paintings recalling moments from everyday life—church picnics, shared meals, parades, and funerals—including a painting acquired by the Speed in 2021, Quilting (1998), which depicts a group of women working on a quilt. Drawing from private and public local and regional collection loans, the exhibition documents her western Kentucky rural and small-town experiences, rooted in Mayfield and around Graves County.

“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,” Chief Curator Erika Holmquist-Wall said. “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.”

As the second installment of the Speed’s Kentucky Women series spotlighting women artists from the Museum’s home state, the exhibition will be displayed salon-style in the Museum’s Kentucky Gallery to illustrate the scope of LaFrance’s prodigious creative output while placing it in conversation with other regional artistic traditions. Programming will include a screening of the 2018 documentary Helen LaFrance: Memories at the Speed Cinemaas well as events and education surrounding the tornado that struck LaFrance’s hometown of Mayfield, Kentucky in December 2021, nearly destroying the historic St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church but leaving intact a mural created by LaFrance in 1947—one of her first known public works. The exhibition will include a display on the mural and aftermath of the tornado, and information on how visitors can support the community’s efforts to preserve the mural and the rebuilding efforts in the Mayfield region.

“When the Speed began the Kentucky Women exhibition series in 2019 with Enid Yandell, it was an affirmation of the Museum’s commitment to tell the full story of the state and its artists,” Speed Museum Director Raphaela Platow said. “Now with Helen LaFrance we are able to highlight the influence of another trailblazing figure who made an indelible impact in the arts and in her community, something we look forward to continuing with this exhibition series.”

Kentucky Women: Helen LaFrance is organized by the Speed Art Museum and curated by Holmquist-Wall and Marissa Coleman, the Speed’s 2022 American Association of Museum Directors intern. Support for the exhibition is provided by Lopa and Rishabh Mehrotra and Anne Brewer Ogden.

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