Leaving a legacy: Grandma Fran no longer paints, but her primitive art lasts

Friday, November 30, 2012
In 1981, Luci Johnson Turpin, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, saw Grandma Fran's work and commissioned a painting from her, and years later, she commissioned another. Turpin chose a painting that was relevant to her family history -- one that proclaimed "T.J. Taylor -- Dealer In Everything." The painting depicts a normal day in the life of T.J. Taylor, general store owner and grandfather of Turpin.

BERRYVILLE -- On U.S. Highway 62, a redwood home overlooks the Kings River. A white iron fence edges the entrance to the home. To the right, a separate door leads to the business side, which houses a gallery for primitive and fine art. A sign between the doors says, "Gallery Closed -- Illness."

Inside the house, stacks of letters, papers, medical books and fedora hats litter the tables; in the gallery, painted canvases and whittled-wood animals adorn the wood-paneled walls. Talk radio is audible from a backroom.

There is only one resident of the home, George Brown, 90. He lives alone, and except the wood carvings, the art inside is not his own. Most of the paintings were made by his wife, Frances Currey-Brown, 87, and her late husband, Thomas L. Currey.

Frances is known in the art world by her moniker, Grandma Fran. She is an artist who painted scenes from her childhood in Indiana and often drew or painted pictures of her life on the farm before electricity and plumbing.

She began painting in the early 1970s when her oldest son James Clarkson moved to Mississippi with his family. She initially started mailing her 2-year-old granddaughter "picture-letters" because she couldn't read yet and she wanted her to know that she had a grandmother who loved her.

An artist visiting the Currey Studio-Gallery noticed her postcards and told Grandma Fran that she should think of painting and selling her work, she did.

Grandma Fran is pictured with her husband, George Brown.

"When they opened the gallery, Mom's stuff began to sell better than Tom's," her son John Clarkson said. "He was a true artist and I don't think he ever really got it."

Grandma Fran offered her primitive artworks to many museums and was accepted into 29 permanent and temporary galleries around the world. Primitive art is a classification that refers to the artists who have little or no formal training and paint historical scenes.

Her first show

In 1977, Currey had an art show just so Grandma Fran could be in it. It was her first gallery showing and she garnered a lot of attention. A year later her painting "Moving Day" was accepted into the Smithsonian American Art Museum permanent collection. The painting represented a family on the move and a town that assisted.

All of Grandma Fran's paintings bustled with people partaking in daily activities and each artwork tells many stories -- one in particular tells 100. Covered wagons zigzag across the mid-section of the canvas; atop the wagons buffalo hides lay drying; a little boy receives a spanking from his mother; a girl tries to pet a poisonous snake and two men discuss how to kill it before it kills her, Brown says.

"No one can tell the stories like Fran," Brown said. "She really took into account what was going on during the time and was able to make them into a painted story. And people used to laugh and laugh when she would share the stories."

Brown cannot recite the stories the way that Grandma Fran told them and she can no longer remember the stories at all.

She cannot remember painting for two presidents or that her art is in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She cannot remember that she has art displayed in Tokyo, Greece, Belgium and England or that she was a pilot and has a Master's of Art in Education. She cannot remember her first husband, with whom she had three children, James, John and Deborah. Nor can she remember her second husband that encouraged her art and provided her with a gallery to display it. She cannot remember her children and often times she cannot remember her current husband, George.

Fran's achievements

Before Grandma Fran was an artist, she was a grade school teacher by day and a doctoral candidate by night. In the 1960s, she worked on a program that analyzed brain functions including that of Alzheimer's disease at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. -- she never completed her dissertation.

In the late 1970s, former president Jimmy Carter advertised that he wanted artworks for his cabin and called for artists to submit their art pieces for a presentation -- Grandma Fran's art was chosen as one of the winners to be displayed in his log cabin.

In 1981, Luci Johnson Turpin, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, was traveling through the Ozark Mountains when she stopped by the Currey Gallery. Once she saw Grandma Fran's worked she commissioned a painting from her and years later, she commissioned another. Turpin chose a painting that was relevant to her family history -- one that proclaimed "T.J. Taylor -- Dealer In Everything." The painting depicts a normal day in the life of T.J. Taylor, general store owner and grandfather to Turpin.

Grandma Fran contacted the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in 1992 and offered a painting to its permanent gallery. After lengthy discussions of the subject matter, the art curator for the museum commissioned to commemorate scenes from Madison County on Memorial Day. The painting titled, Decoration Day, depicts the decorating of graves in observance of the holiday.

"We chose to commission a painting that depicted activities from past life and traditional ways of living in the area," said Carolyn Reno, collection manager and assistant director of the Shiloh Museum. "We welcome different historical aspects of past life and history to the area."

Loss of a loved one

In 2000, her memory began to deteriorate and many of her loved ones shrugged it off as age-appropriate forgetfulness. It wasn't until 2006 that her husband took her to a specialist where she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

"She was a brilliant woman and to see her lose her cognitive abilities is very difficult," said Brown's daughter, Nan Snow.

The family kept her at home as long as they could but when Grandma Fran began wandering around, her husband grew worried that she would leave the house. He built barricades to try and keep her from leaving and that's when he knew she had to be somewhere she could have round-the-clock care."

In 2009, Grandma Fran was placed in a nursing home facility just six miles west of their home, in Eureka Springs.

Her depleting memory has had a lasting effect on those around her. Her husband now goes to grief counseling to deal with his wife's memory loss.

"Alzheimer's really affects the family more than the person with the disease," Dunlap said.

In 2011, Grandma Fran's step-daughter, Nan Snow was the last child to visit her and thinks of every clear moment as a gift.

"A year ago, she couldn't really speak or form sentences very well and she turned to me and said, "Nan, I love you so much," Snow said.

The last time Snow visited Grandma Fran was in October 2012, for her 87th birthday. "I didn't think she knew me," Snow said. "She wasn't speaking at all and seemed stressed but for a second she was clear-eyed and she looked like Fran and she said, "You're so beautiful" -- I think of those things as little gifts."

Brown recalled a visit with Fran in October. "A few weeks ago I tried to get a kiss from her when I went to visit and she told me "I don't kiss strangers." It was so hard on me, I just love her and I try to remind her that every time I see her," he said.

On Nov. 9, Brown says to her, "Fran, you know I love you don't you? Give me a kiss so I know you love me," -- and Grandma Fran leans in and gives him a kiss.

"She let me kiss her and she kissed me back," he says. A few weeks earlier Brown had tried to give Grandma Fran a kiss and she told him, "I don't kiss strangers." He cried that day; he cries most days at the thought of losing his wife.

"Even if she can't remember, I do; we had a beautiful life together," Brown said.

Despite her memory loss, Brown still visits Grandma Fran every day. "She doesn't always remember him but some days she says his name," Dunlap said. "Just last week she told George that he was wonderful; it was so good for both of them."

These days, she doesn't do much painting or drawing but in moments of clarity, she does her best.

"Once or twice a month the residents do arts and crafts and Fran participates," said Kathy Dunlap, director of social services at Brighton Ridge Nursing Home. "Her cognitive abilities aren't there, so when she draws it isn't with the same detail."

Though Grandma Fran's moments of clarity are not often, her son, John, believes she understands more than she can express. "There is more in that woman than is overtly apparent," he said.

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