Born in Graves County, Kentucky, Helen LaFrance was a self-taught artist of vibrant regional paintings. She grew up in a family of farmers. Though she never received formal art instruction, her parents inspired her to draw and helped her make pigments from natural materials and laundry detergent. She painted beginning at a young age, but worked other jobs like in a hospital, photography studio, and making ceramic decanters, before turning to painting full-time in the 1980s, when she began to sell her work locally. Prior to moving into a house, she used an old nearby school bus as a studio.
She became best known for her “memory paintings” that recalled earlier years and experiences of her life in the rural South, especially farm images, picnics, town scenes, church scenes, domestic life, and other expressions of daily joy. When reflecting on the details of these moments from her youth, like sitting all day and eating during Homecoming day each June, LaFrance remarked “That’s when it’s fun – when I can get to thinking about something and then paint it as I think of it.” Author Kathy Moses Shelton notes that despite growing up under Jim Crow and the Great Depression, LaFrance’s paintings evoke vivacity and resilience, rather than pain of the era. About these works, the artist said, “I do what I do from memory, that’s what I paint from...I say, ‘well I remember how that was’ and I put it on paper, or canvas...I guess it’s just a way of reliving it all again.”
In addition to the landscapes and domestic scenes, she made ecstatic paintings based on religious visions that were inspired by the Bible, though she rarely spoke about them – perhaps they were “private visitations.” Later in life she developed a technique of painting more than one canvas at a time, which expedited the process of waiting for paint to dry, and she also experimented with small canvases in order to make use of leftover paints.
She received Kentucky’s Folk Art Heritage Award in 2011. Her paintings have been acquired by celebrity collectors like Oprah Winfrey, Bryant Gumbel, and Beth Rudin DeWoody. Her work is in the collections of the Kentucky Folk Art Center, Owensboro Museum of Fine Art, and the Johnson Collection.