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SoLost: "I'll Paint Something Worthwhile"

Is it her schoolgirl laugh? Her regal elocution? Her quiet beauty? What is it that makes an ancient woman like Helen LaFrance so mesmerizing?

Maybe it starts with her memories. Over nine decades of them. The memories she turns into paintings. Like she always has. The paintings that stay with you—as though you have no choice in the matter….

Peacefully ensconced in a mundane wing of a Kentucky retirement home is ninety-three-year-old Helen LaFrance. Like she has since she was a little girl, she paints. And paints. And paints and paints and paints. Ever since the day she caught the aroma of a crayon handed to her by her mother (the same mother who, when the family couldn't afford supplies, ground up dandelions to make paint for her little girl).

The academics call her a folk artist. A "memory painter." As in—she paints her memories. Memories of a childhood on a farm and a nine-decade life spent in the rural world of Western Kentucky. They name her in the tradition of Grandma Moses. Of Clementine Hunter. The context is helpful to others, but seems of little relevance to Helen. She just paints and practices her strong Christian faith.

One senses that she knows her days are shorter now. She's thinking about the afterlife. About how she has lived and what it adds up to. With typical modesty, she tells us, "Every day I think I'll paint something worthwhile one of these days…."

As though she hasn't already….

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