The Helen LaFrance exhibit at Tennessee State Museum arrives on the heels of last winter's massive Howard Finster retrospective. Both artists are self-taught, and fit into the much-disputed "outsider artist" category, but LaFrance's Folk Art Memories is a smaller, more carefully curated exhibit — just 29 paintings are on display here.
LaFrance is a Kentucky-based artist who, at 90+ years old, has been making paintings since the 1920s. The ones selected for this show perfectly represent her style, which is part-Grandma Moses, but with a little Richard Scarry thrown in. I was reminded of Finster — her landscapes are crowded with people dressed in bright colors, dancing and fighting together — but also of the children's illustrations of Scarry and Gyo Fujikawa.
My favorite painting of the group is "Downtown Burning." I took a few photos of the details I wanted to remember in the painting, and kept being reminded of television shows like Reading Rainbow that would pan across a book's illustrations as the story was being read. When you piece it together you get a pretty terrifying image — a building engulfed in flames, bodies climbing and jumping out windows, sirens wailing. But there's also something festive about the way the story's told, something controlled and choreographed, and so the horror of the events becomes secondary, and what's most important is that there's a really great story to tell.
The detail shots are below. The exhibit is free, and it's up through August 12. (Also noteworthy: The State Museum has one of the best ACs in downtown Nashville, so if you're in the neighborhood and want to cool down — and want to look at some pretty storytelling paintings while you're at it — now's your chance.)