“Art is the story of my life,” says Eunice LaFate. // Photo by Joe Del Tufo
When Eunice LaFate’s husband of 31 years lost his long battle with prostate cancer in May, her creative spark dimmed.
Robert had always supported her artistic endeavors. He made sure her paintings hung straight at showings. He happily distributing copies of the Out & About magazine that featured her work on the cover.
“He was my sidekick, my greatest cheerleader,” LaFate says. “He was so proud of me.”
After he died, she started packing up her paintings. She had planned to put them all in storage. She had also intended to sell her Wilmington home—her gallery since 1993—and move into an apartment.
But those decisions left her feeling uneasy. Could she quit something that gave such joy to her and to so many others?
LaFate asked for guidance. That night, it came in a dream.
“I had a vision,” LaFate says. “I was told I should not hide the talent the Lord gave me. It was surreal.”
LaFate unpacked her paintings, then headed straight to a leasing office in the LOMA section of Wilmington. LaFate wanted a storefront for a gallery—something she never had in her long and distinguished career.
A perfect location had just become available—a development LaFate calls “divine providence”—and she immediately signed the lease. “It changed my world,” she says.
The LaFate Gallery at 227 N. Market St. officially opened in late September. LaFate, 69, calls it a unique venue inspired by her experiences and skills.
“Art is the story of my life,” she says.
Born and raised in Jamaica, LaFate began her career as a teacher, but art soon found its way into her curriculum through drawing on the chalkboard and other ways.
“I used art as the center of my teaching,” she says. “Every lesson ended with an art piece. My classroom was like a museum.”
LaFate left the Caribbean in 1983, then moved to Wilmington, where she taught fourth grade. She continued to incorporate art into daily school activities. And into her home life. That first chilly winter in the United States, LaFate felt nostalgic for home. “I got through it by painting beautiful tropical scenes to keep my spirit warm,” LaFate says. “I was trying to recapture my culture—the landscape, the people, the flowers.”
She eventually transitioned to a straight-laced job in the banking industry, but the creativity never left her. After a rough day at the office, she would relieve the stress by painting at home.
LaFate’s art career stalled when she became pregnant with her son, Jermaine. The paint fumes made her so nauseous, she didn’t lift a brush for eight years. Teaching art to children as a volunteer at the Walnut Street YMCA in Wilmington in 1992 rejuvenated her career. But instead of painting tropical scenes, she took on social issues. “I’m an unrepentant political junkie,” she says.
When the governor passed the Marriage Equality Bill, she painted a piece titled “Rays of Equality.” Influenced by her move to corporate America, her picture “Reaching for the Stars” shows people in red, yellow, black and white with their arms stretched toward the sky. “It’s saying, regardless of your color, class or creed, you have to have the desire to reach for the stars,” she says.
The meaning behind any painting is far more important than anatomical accuracy. Most figures in her images have rounded hands instead of fingers, for example. “Folk art is derived from the heart. It’s soulful.”
LaFate not only wants to tell a story with her art, she wants to use the medium to help others. When her husband was so sick he was unable to talk, she would sit by his side in the nursing home and paint. The resulting series, “Heart of Caregiving,” is featured in her gallery.
“It was a transformative moment,” says LaFate, a 2014 recipient of the Governor’s Award for the Arts. “Art is my therapy.”
LaFate’s work appears in the permanent collections of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., and the Blue Ball Barn Museum in Wilmington, which recently featured her in a 20-year folk art retrospective exhibition. “That was the high point of my career,” she says. In 2004, LaFate received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts, and she earned a Christi Award from the Christina Cultural Arts Center in 2007.
She will teach a series of classes in the gallery—the first one showing caregivers how to use art as a coping mechanism when dealing with grief. Another class will share how companies can change an office’s feeling through art and make it a more relatable place in a diverse work environment. Another class will focus on the business of art to show people that they can transform a hobby into a career.
“It will be like a 12-step program,” she says. “It will describe how you recognize your talent, market it and let it grow so you can benefit.”
LaFate’s 31-year-old son Jermaine, who helped with the gallery’s launch, says his mom cares deeply for the city and its residents.
To further strengthen the bonds of Wilmington’s artistic community, he says they want to use the gallery to host storytellers so people can learn more about folk art and culture, and to open the space so other artists can exhibit. LaFate also might paint there, so locals can see the creative process in action.
“This will be much more than a traditional gallery,” says Jermaine, a Wilmington resident. “It will be an art haven.”
To see some of Eunice LaFate’s work, visit www.lafategallery.com.