Helen LaFrance was a self-taught painter, woodcarver, and quiltmaker who spent most of her life in the small town of Mayfield, Kentucky. In her art―first produced in the restrictive interior of a converted school bus and, later, in a modest studio space―LaFrance transcribed childhood experiences and interpreted verses from the Bible. Her colorful painted images―which she described as “memory paintings”―reflect decades of collected memories spanning river baptisms, church picnics, traveling circuses, and Southern agricultural scenes. “It’s just a way of reliving it all again,” the artist said in a 2010 interview.

LaFrance’s parents, James Franklin Orr and Lillie May Orr, made a living growing various crops and raising livestock. Their status as self-sufficient landowners was relatively uncommon in the post-Reconstruction era, during which many African American farmers labored as sharecroppers and were afforded little agency. Formal schooling was sporadic for LaFrance and her siblings, given their farm responsibilities and the lack of educational opportunities available to black children at that time; her parents opted instead for home instruction, procuring books from town and distributing them to an enthusiastic daughter who required little instructional direction. LaFrance stated that she began painting before learning to write—a skill encouraged by her mother, who would often guide her daughter’s dexterous hand across the page. Following her mother’s oft-imparted wisdom to “paint what you know,” LaFrance sought out wildlife and gardens around the family farm.

Over her lifetime, LaFrance held an array of jobs, including working in a tobacco barn, decorating souvenir whiskey bottles, and providing childcare. It was not until she was in her 40s that she purchased art supplies from the grocery store and, following a day’s work, began painting late into the night. The vicissitudes and revolving fortunes of LaFrance’s long life—multiple marriages that “didn’t take,” an adopted child and eventual grandchildren, donating her time and financial resources to those in need, and owning a gallery and multiple rental properties––left few free hours for creative pursuits. In 1986, she was able to begin painting full-time.

LaFrance––who signed her canvases with that surname, but was known as “Ms. Orr” to friends and neighbors––likened her artistic process to preserving homegrown vegetables through canning: by documenting the rapidly changing culture and landscape of rural Kentucky and layering multiple memories onto a single canvas, she was able to encapsulate fleeting moments that might otherwise go unnoticed. Often compared to paintings executed by Grandma Moses, LaFrance’s works have been described as profoundly universal, each scene portraying an amalgamation of stories and memories unconnected to any specific location or single event. Viewers frequently find glimmers of their own upbringing or hometown in her images. In 2011, nine years before her death at the age of 101 in 2020, LaFrance received Kentucky’s Folk Art Heritage Award; today, her work is held in numerous private collections, as well as the permanent collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum.