Thomas Bright still marvels at the ancient mural by Helen LaFrance in St. James’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Mayfield, of which he is a life member.
But the 66-year-old retiree and military veteran fears the artwork may be doomed for demolition, like his red-brick house of worship from the 1900s. The church is one of dozens of other structures. Mayfield which were heavily damaged or destroyed by the December 10 nighttime tornado that caused death and devastation in western Kentucky.
At least 21 people have died in Graves County, of which Mayfield is the seat. The deaths included Bright’s aunt, Ollie Bright Reeves, 80. After groping through the dark past of debris, fallen trees and downed power lines, hoping to find her alive, he found her body in the yard of his Mayfield home, which the tornado had uprooted. since its foundation.
“She looked and felt like she was in her sixties,” said Bright, who worked for the Social Security Administration. “She was a loyal member of our church.”
Sometimes referred to as “the black grandmother Moses,” LaFrance was a widely exhibited Graves County-born artist whose works are cherished by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Bryant Gumbel. Gus Van Sant Sr., father of the filmmaker, returned to his hometown of Mayfield and found his portrayal in a gallery. His work is also part of the permanent collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art.
LaFrance grew up in a farming family in Jim Crow, western Kentucky, when segregation and racial discrimination were the rule of law. She taught herself to paint and was also a quiltmaker, woodcarver, and doll maker.
Bright remembered when LaFrance lived in the country, when she turned an old school bus into an art studio. “This bus had no air conditioning and it was hot in the summer,” he said.
LaFrance, who died in Mayfield in 2020 at the age of 101, loved to paint religious-themed murals inside churches. That of St. James AME represents Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest while his disciples are sleeping.
The mural, which is on the back wall of the chancel attic, survived the collapse of the church roof in the sanctuary. Bright fears he cannot be saved as he is painted onto a concrete wall that is likely to crumble along with the rest of the church. “It’s also real old-fashioned solid concrete, but maybe it could be sawn off somehow,” he said.
The mural could potentially be copied as Reverend Bruce Dobyns, local NAACP president, has a scanned image. Dobyns retired from the pulpit at Mayfield’s Early Christian Church, which the tornado also destroyed.
Bright, a member of the NAACP, does not know when LaFrance painted the mural. “It was before I was born. It is an inspiration to the congregation.
Bright said when he saw the artwork as a child: “I was like, ‘I wish I could paint like this’. I can’t even draw a stickman.
Bright hopes the church, founded in 1868 by freed slaves, can be rebuilt “in its current 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, he said. “Our door is open to everyone, regardless of your age, color, beliefs, gender or sexuality. We have always been there for the community.
Berry Craig is a journalist and historian who grew up in Mayfield.