Thomas Bright still marvels at Helen LaFrance’s old mural in Mayfield’s St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he’s a lifelong member.
But the 66-year-old retiree and Army veteran fears the artwork is doomed for demolition like his red brick, 1900s-vintage house of worship. The church is among dozens of other structures in Mayfield that were heavily damaged or destroyed by the December 10 nighttime tornado that spun a swath of death and destruction through western Kentucky.
At least 21 people perished in Graves County, of which Mayfield is the seat. Fatalities included Bright’s aunt, Ollie Bright Reeves, 80. After groping in the dark past debris, fallen trees and downed power lines, hoping to discover her alive, he found her body in the yard of her Mayfield home, which the twister had wrenched away from its foundation.
“She looked and felt like she was in her 60’s,” said Bright, who worked for the Social Security Administration. “She was a faithful member of our church.”
Sometimes called “the Black Grandma Moses,” LaFrance was a widely exhibited Graves County-born artist whose works are treasured by celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Bryant Gumbel.
Sometimes called “the Black Grandma Moses,” LaFrance was a widely exhibited Graves County-born artist whose works are treasured by celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Bryant Gumbel. Gus Van Sant Sr., father of the filmmaker, returned to his hometown of Mayfield and found her gallery representation. Her work is also in the permanent collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art.
LaFrance grew up in a farm family in Jim Crow western Kentucky when segregation and race discrimination were the law and the social order. She taught herself to paint and was also a quilter, wood carver and dollmaker.
Bright remembered when LaFrance lived in the country, where she had converted an old school bus into her art studio. “That bus didn’t have air conditioning and it was hot in the summer,” he said.
LaFrance, who died in Mayfield in 2020 at age 101, enjoyed painting religious-themed murals inside churches. The one in St. James AME depicts Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest while His disciples sleep.
The mural, which is on the back wall of the choir loft, survived the collapse of the church roof into the sanctuary. Bright fears it can’t be saved because it is painted on a concrete wall that would probably have to come down with the rest of the church. “It’s real, old-fashioned solid concrete, too, but maybe it could be sawed out some way,” he said.
The mural could possibly be copied because the Rev. Bruce Dobyns, local NAACP president, has a digitized image. Dobyns retired from the pulpit at Mayfield First Christian Church, which the tornado also wrecked.
Bright, an NAACP member, doesn’t know when LaFrance painted the mural. “It was before I was born. It’s an inspiration to the congregation.”
Bright said when he viewed the artwork as a kid, “I’d think, ‘I wish I could paint like that.’ I can’t even draw a stickman.”
Bright hopes the church, founded in 1868 by freed slaves, can be rebuilt “on its present location as a scaled down version of the original. We are the oldest Black congregation in Mayfield and Graves County.”
But whites have always been welcome to join, he said. “Our door is open to anybody, regardless of your age, color, creed, gender or sexuality. We’ve always been here for the community.”