Arts and Culture

Kentucky artist Helen LaFrance Orr painted from memory.

“I just get to thinking about something and I say, ‘Well, I remember how that was. I believe I’ll put it on paper or canvas or whatever,’” LaFrance Orr told KET in 1997. 

“I guess it’s just a way of re-living it all again.”

Those memories show up as joyful and colorful scenes in her work, images of the church she went to as a child or the family farm she grew up on in Graves County in Western Kentucky. 

LaFrance Orr died on Nov. 22 of natural causes at a nursing home in Mayfield. She was 101.

“Helen LaFrance Orr left this earth to dance with the angels,” an obituary said. 

Gallerist and LaFrance Orr’s art dealer, Bruce Shelton, said the self-taught artist was “very skilled” and prolific. She excelled in many mediums, such as painting, wood carving and quilting. And while she might be best known for her “memory painting” of rural landscapes, she also did religious paintings, Shelton said, notably very different in style and look. 

Courtesy Bruce Shelton

“Church Picnic,” a “memory painting” by Helen LaFrance Orr.

“She was very much in tune with herself and what she was doing and what she liked to do,” Shelton said. “She’s just a kind and gentle woman, besides being a very much a gifted artist.”

One of her “memory paintings” of a church scene is currently on loan to the Speed Art Museum, installed earlier this month. It will be on view for at least several months, according to Erika Holmquist-Wall, Speed’s curator of European & American painting & sculpture. She said the loaned painting is from a neighbor of LaFrance Orr’s. 

The museum is pursuing a potential acquisition of the artist’s work for its permanent collection, Holmquist-Wall said. 

LaFrance Orr was the second of four kids, and her mother inspired and fostered her knack for painting and drawing. 

Asked about how she learned art in a video interview for the Kentucky Arts Council, she said, “I never did learn. I’m still trying to learn.”

“I used to try to paint before I learned how to write,” she said. 

Courtesy Bruce Shelton

Artist Helen LaFrance Orr.

In her 40s, LaFrance Orr was able to set aside money to purchase her own arts materials. According to a story in Nashville Arts Magazine, she’d paint “off and on between loading dried tobacco onto conveyor belts in the tobacco barns, cleaning offices, and painting novelty whiskey bottles at a ceramics plant.” 

She began painting full time in the mid 1980s when she was in her late 60s.

“Helen really got control of that brush in 1987,” Shelton said. “She just came of age at that time. When I met Helen, she was 71-years-old and she was really painting at the top of her game at that time and did for quite some time after that.”

Shelton also co-authored a 2011 book, “Helen LaFrance: Folk Art Memories,” with writer Kathy Moses Shelton.

In an interview with the New York Times, Moses Shelton said LaFrance Orr, a Black artist, “grew up under Jim Crow. She was 10 when the Great Depression hit.”

“Her art doesn’t reflect the pain of that era,” Moses Shelton told the New York Times. “Instead what comes through is joy, and the values of family and work… Her blend of personal experience, Black American culture and heritage, and her skill all come into play to make her work unlike anybody else’s.”

That same year the book published, LaFrance Orr received the Kentucky Folk Heritage Award.

“These people have done so much to advance the arts in Kentucky and bring attention to Kentucky as a great place to live, work and play,” then-Gov. Steve Beshear said in a news release about the individuals who received the honors that year. “Their contributions have been generous and their achievements extraordinary.” 

Shelton said celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and well-known journalists Gayle King and Bryant Gumbel own works by LaFrance Orr. 

Her art is also in the permanent collections of institutions such as the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art in Western Kentucky, which has nine of her works, and the Saint Louis Art Museum, which has two paintings.

“The works of art by Helen LaFrance Orr… are important contributions to the grand tradition of Kentucky Folk Art.,” a statement shared from the museum said.

Friends have described LaFrance Orr as humble and certainly not someone craving the limelight.

Close friend and caregiver Wanda Stubblefield told the AP in 2019 that, when LaFrance Orr showed up for her 100th birthday party and saw all the people attending, “she just gave a little smile, an embarrassed-looking smile, that it was all for her.”

Courtesy Bruce Shelton

“Tent Revival” by Helen LaFrance Orr

Shelton’s hope is that LaFrance Orr gets her “rightful place in American art history,” and, someday, a major museum retrospective of her work.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.