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Introduction: Frances Brand Collection

Some were indeed “firsts”—first Black mayor of Charlottesville, first woman to be admitted to the University, first woman priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. But Mrs. Brand was not too literal about whom she considered a “first.” One woman was the first local mother to have a delivery by the Lamaze method. Others were the first in their family, neighborhood or community to accomplish an academic or career goal that, while perhaps not monumental in the Grand Sweep of Things, were nonetheless important milestones for the people involved.

The one consistent criterion seems to have been that these were people that Mrs. Brand had met and befriended in Charlottesville or Albemarle County, people whose strength of character she admired. The first “First” was, in fact, a young, unwed, pregnant immigrant from Colombia. When her father was stabbed while confronting his daughter’s rapist; the young woman supported her family by working as a flagman on a VDOT road crew.

Mrs. Brand was a retired Army major, a widow, a grandmother, a devoted churchwoman, a stalwart civil rights champion and peace activist, and an eccentric who chose in later years to wear purple on every occasion.

After retiring from the military in the 1950s, she used the G.I. Bill to study painting in Mexico City. A multi-lingual, worldwide traveler, Mrs. Brand collected tribal and peasant folk art from many different countries and cultures. She was particularly affected by Mexican folk painting, and, though she was proficient in other styles—notably the American “Ash Can” school of social realism—when she began to paint the “Firsts,” she was already working in a style heavily influenced by Mexican street painters and Catholic iconography. The “Firsts” sometimes overlap stylistically and in subject matter with another series she undertook she called the “Madonna and Child” series.

Like many folk artists, Mrs. Brand chose to work using the materials most readily at hand. She bought cheaply framed, mass-produced pictures from the Roses store downtown, and painted over them using acrylics. She worked rapidly, painting scores of two-foot-by-four-foot portraits in a period of months.

The paintings were first displayed as a collection at the dedication ceremony for the Central Place of the (then) new Downtown Pedestrian Mall in 1976. Since then the “Firsts” have been shown many times around town, and at a gallery in her home that she created before her death. Her grown grandchildren have maintained the house and adjacent galleries as an (unincorporated, certainly non-profit) museum until this day, and have opened the doors to hundreds of visiting groups.

After a large exhibit at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society in 2004, Mrs. Brand’s paintings were displayed in some of the city’s recreation centers.

Evaluating Mrs. Brand’s work as folk art (hers was the subject of a doctoral dissertation for the Department of Folklore and Folklife at Indiana University by Michele Brannigan in 1998) presents some conceptual challenges. Her paintings were rendered in a consciously “folk” style, but Mrs. Brand was not a member of any stereotypically “folk” group—she was not a member of any ethnic minority or sub-culture, she was not a peasant or a factory worker, and she was certainly not “untutored.” But by the more inclusive, contemporary definitions of folk culture, her work qualifies in important ways as “folk” or “vernacular.” Her work was the creative expression of the traditional values, mores and beliefs of a close-knit (if diverse) community. The paintings served the classic functions of folklore—they instructed the young, they commemorated local acts of valor and determination, and they defined an aesthetic and a collective subject matter that was instantly recognizable as “belonging” to Charlottesville and Albemarle County in the last half of the Twentieth Century.

As Mrs. Brand neared the end of her long life, her vision began to fail her, and the later paintings reveal her growing frailty. Many of her subjects will tell you that some of Mrs. Brand’s paintings were not the most flattering of portraits. Still, even in her last paintings, her love of her subjects comes through, in the eyes, the colors, and the characteristic inclusion of some recognizable object, book, or building that identifies the subject and the thing—the accomplishment, event, or action—of which they were most proud.

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